Advanced Reporting: Media Criticism (NYU)

This course is about power and the press, with the first half focused on journalists’ roles and responsibilities when covering politics, government, and war. Students will focus in the second half on deeply reporting a capstone paper, meeting several prominent media writers, and broadening their scope to examine coverage of other power centers in American society, from Wall Street to Hollywood to big-time sports.

From the campaign bus to the White House briefing room, journalists are expected to vet candidates and hold elected leaders accountable. While journalists often succeed in uncovering truth and shedding light on policymakers’ decisions, they have also failed by promoting misinformation and succumbing to groupthink—and should be held accountable themselves. The consequences are too great to give the press a free pass, with journalists last decade both helping to sell an ill-conceived war and missing the warning signs of a financial crisis. Journalists are expected to serve the public’s interest, but every day encounter government officials, publicists and celebrities’ agents with their own motivations, often restricting access unless it serves their own agencies’ and industry’s interests. Media disruption in the recent years has also challenged the established order, with journalists at elite news organizations no longer the gatekeepers of information that’s freely discussed and shared on social media.

And these days, everyone can be a critic. Journalists face an unprecedented volume of real-time analysis of their work from cable news pundits, partisan bloggers, independent fact-checkers, and news junkies on Twitter. But does such criticism help improve the news media or simply add static to an already noisy, hyper-politicized environment?

Writing: There will two graded papers, a journalist profile and capstone paper. There will also be a graded post to be published on.

Students may be called upon during the semester to write short response pieces that will be factored into class participations grades.

As the 2016 frenzy gets under way, students will write an 800- to 1,000-word profile of a political journalist that examines his or her coverage and shifting responsibilities given new technology and need to be part of the social media conversation. Students should probe how the journalist hopes to stand apart amid a glut of 2016 reporting and commentary. Students are expected to interview the journalist being profiled in person or by phone and display a strong familiarity with their work for this first paper. Students will post their completed profiles on Medium in a class collection.

For the second half of the course, students will focus on how the media covers a specific issue, with each topic requiring approval from the professor. For instance, previous students in this course have analyzed media coverage of same-sex marriage legislation, the war in Afghanistan, marijuana legalization, and the business of baseball. Students should follow journalists and experts on their chosen beat on Twitter and engage on social media.

Students will publish a 500- to 1000-word post on Medium on their chosen issue that features a news hook, engaging interview or data element. Students will need to consider why a reader would wish to share this post on social media. The reporting from this post can be incorporated into the final paper.

The final, capstone paper will be a 3,000-word reported piece in which students critique how their chosen issue is covered in the media. For instance, students may assess how a single news organization has covered the issue or compare how several outlets with differing agendas have done so. The final paper must include a significant amount of original reporting, along with the student’s analysis. The topic must be approved in advance by the professor.

Reading: The following two books are required”

Michael Massing: Now They Tell Us: The American Press and Iraq

David Foster Wallace: McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking About Hope

Most of the course reading will be magazine articles and studies available online. Additional readings may be assigned at any time to bring a controversy or ethical issue playing out on the media beat into the classroom.

Students must come prepared to discuss a weekly question on the assigned reading. The professor will provide that question in the days leading up to class. Students do not need to write a formal response, but the discussion—typically at the start of each class—will weigh heavily into participation grades.

Late Assignments: This is a journalism course and so meeting deadlines is key. If an assignment is due on a day of class, the deadline is 6:20 p.m., the start of class. Students will lose one letter grade is an assignment is turned in late. If the assignment is turned in more than 24 hours late, the student will lose two letters grades. No papers will be accepted more than 48 hours after deadline.

Grading: Class participation and attendance: 35% First paper: 15% Medium post: 10% Final paper: 40% Grade scale: A (96-100) A- (90-95) B+ (87-89) B (85-87) B- (80-84) C+ (77-79) C (75-77) C- (70-74) D (68-69) F (67 and below)

Ethics: Plagiarism and fabrication is not tolerated and will result in failure for the course.

Attendance: Since class meets only once a week, two unexcused absences will hurt final grades. Students with three or more unexcused absences will not pass the class. Students need to present a doctor’s note describing the reason from missing class in order to have the absence excused. Given that this is a small, discussion-heavy class, attendance and participation will weigh heavily into final grades.

Laptops/ Cell Phones: Laptops may be used in class, though the professor reserves the right to ask they not be used at certain times. Please keep cell phones off during class.

Weekly Schedule:

Jan 29: Introduction on politics and the press

Feb. 5: Campaigns

READING: Joan Didion: “Insider Baseball” (New York Review of Books); Michael Hastings: “Hack: Confessions of Presidential Campaign Reporter” (GQ); Calderone: “At The 2012 Conventions, 15,000 Journalists Search For A Story.” (The Huffington Post)

SCREENING: D.A. Pennebaker: The War Room

WRITING: List of possible profile subjects due. Be prepared to discuss plans for securing and an in-person or phone interview.

Feb. 12: Campaigns II

GUEST SPEAKER: Marin Cogan, contributing editor for New York magazine and contributing writer for ESPN The Magazine; Has also reported on politics for National Journal, The New Republic, and Politico.

READING: David Foster Wallace: McCain’s Promise

WRITING: Discuss progress of political journalist profile.

Feb. 19: Scandal

READING: Matt Bai: “How Gary Hart’s Downfall Forever Changed American Politics” (New York Times Magazine); Calderone: “Edwards epilogue: Does the press really vet presidential candidates?” (Politico).

WRITING: First draft of profile due.

Feb 26: The White House

READING: Ken Auletta: “Fortress Bush” (The New Yorker); Leonard Downie: Selections from “The Obama Administration and the Press” (Committee To Protect Journalists); Rachel Rose Hartman and Chris Wilson: “The top 9,486 ways Jay Carney won’t answer your questions” (Yahoo News).

Writing: Political profile due by email to the professor on Mar. 2 by 6 p.m. Also, publish your story on Medium.

Mar. 5: National Security

READING: Michael Massing: Now They Tell Us (through pg. 66); Calderone and Sam Stein: “If You Were An Iraq War Critic, You’re Probably Not Being Asked To Go On TV” and “Americans Panicked Over ISIS Threat That Experts Say Isn’t Imminent” (The Huffington Post).

SCREENING: Bill Moyers: Buying The War

WRITING: Come prepared to discuss possible topics to explore for the second half of the course.

Mar. 12: National Security II

GUEST SPEAKER: Spencer Ackerman, national security editor for The Guardian and member of Pulitzer Prize-winning team for coverage of National Security Agency surveillance programs.

READING: Max Frankel: “Deposition in The Pentagon Papers case (Frontline); Alan Rusbridger: “The Snowden Leaks and the Public” (New York Review of Books); Ackerman: “Edward Snowden is a whistleblower, not a spy—but do our leaders care?” (The Guardian).

WRITING: Bring list of potential sources and plans for reporting to class.


Mar 26: Wall Street

READING: Dean Starkman: “Power Problem” and “The Great Story” (Columbia Journalism Review); Gabriel Sherman: “The Information Broker (New York).

SCREENING: Page One: Inside The New York Times

WRITING: Discuss plans for reporting on topics for the second half of the semester.

April 2: The New York Times

GUEST SPEAKER: Margaret Sullivan, public editor of The New York Times. This class will be held at the New York Times building. Please meet in the lobby at 6:20 p.m.

READING: Daniel Okrent: “Is The New York Times a Liberal Newspaper?” (New York Times); Sullivan’s columns and blog posts.

WRITING: Discuss reporting process so far and plans for a Medium post. The reporting for this post can also be incorporated later in your final paper. Please publish your Medium post by 6 p.m. on April 6 and email link to your professor.

April 9: Editorial meeting

WRITING: Please bring a lead for your final paper, roughly 500 words, to class.

April 16: Celebrity

READING: Julianna Escobedo Shepherd: Rihanna #777Tour Wrap-Up: Junkets and Journalism are Worthless: All Hail Instagram (Spin); Ta-Nehisi Coates: “The Cosby Show” (The Atlantic); Anne Helen Peterson: “The Down And Dirty Hisory Of TMZ” (BuzzFeed).

WRITING: 1,000 words.

April 23: Sports

GUEST SPEAKER: Richard Deitsch, Sports Illustrated media columnist.

READING: Timothy Burke and Jack Dickey: “Manti Te’o’s Dead Girlfriend, The Most Heartbreaking And Inspirational Story Of The College Football Season, Is A Hoax” (Deadspin); Deitch’s columns.

WRITING: 2,000 – 3,000 words

April 30: Cable news

GUEST SPEAKER: Brian Stelter, senior media correspondent for CNN and host of “Reliable Sources.”

READING: Sherman: “The Elephant in the Green Room” (New York); Stelter’s writing on and “Reliable Sources” segments.

May 7: Students will turn in final papers. They’ll also each give a five-minute presentation on their chosen topics, which will be factored into the final

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