Classes | Columbia Journalism School


Please note: The classes listed here represent recent offerings at the Journalism School. These include M.S., M.S. in Data Journalism and M.A. courses. Choices vary each semester depending on faculty availability and other considerations. Classes described now may change or be dropped to make room for new additions. We cannot promise that students will gain a seat in any specific class.

Covering American Politics

The purpose of this course is to equip students to cover American politics and elections in original, lively and sophisticated ways. The course will combine instruction in the subject matter and structure of American politics with workshops on specialized reporting and writing methods. We will enrich our knowledge by studying the history of populism; the quasi-science of public opinion polling; shifts in the Electoral College during recent presidential elections; and voter issues such as gun violence and inequality. At the same time, we will workshop political reporting and storytelling methods, such as the art of the political profile; how to interview politicians effectively; and how to investigate candidates’ biographies.

We intend to take advantage of the 2020 election season, which should be in full chaos throughout our spring course, to plug ourselves directly into the challenges of reporting on President Trump, his Democratic opposition and the country’s polarized electorate during a season of heightened excitement. We will recruit guest speakers from the front lines of campaign reporting and from inside political campaigns. Our assignments will ask students to plunge into the fray themselves.

With some exceptions, classes will be divided into two parts: A session on some aspect of the substance of American politics, followed by a workshop on some aspect of political reporting or storytelling. In addition to preparing for and sometimes leading workshop sessions, each student will complete three assignments: 1) A spot story of a campaign event or rally, written on deadline; 2) an interview with a current candidate, edited into a lively Q&A; and 3) in pairs, an enterprise story of at least 2000 words profiling an intriguing individual or institution in one of the counties of Pennsylvania that voted twice for President Obama in 2008 and 2012; then voted for President Trump in 2016; and that are now hotly prized in the 2020 cycle.

How to Cover Armies and Spies

Armies and intelligence services are among the most powerful and secretive of institutions, in democracies and authoritarian states alike. They are monopolists of the legitimate use of force, arbiters of war and peace and outsized consumers of national budgets. Covering militaries and spies well and revealingly is hard work that requires preparation and commitment. But it is vital journalism with a public purpose. And occasionally it is journalism that changes the world, from Sy Hersh’s My Lai massacre reporting to Abu Ghraib to Edward Snowden.

This course will prepare students to cover militaries and intelligence services, whether in the United States or abroad. We will take a broad approach, understanding security issues to include human rights, migration and the environment. We will review diverse sourcing strategies, durable story genres and professional and ethical conundrums on the beat. The intention is to equip students to take on defense, intelligence and related human rights reporting as a subject area for daily reporting, longform investigation or as a recurring part of a diversified career, with the understanding that the best sourcing in this field can require years to develop.

Each student will complete a significant piece of narrative reporting accessible from the United States.

We will also undertake a class project about the war in Syria, incorporating data journalism methods and investigative reporting on public records, satellite imagery, user-generated content and confidential source development. The project should provide a strong, accessible body of collaborative work for each enrolled student to highlight in a portfolio. The class will satisfy workshop requirements for both investigative and data concentrators in the M.S. program.

International Newsroom: Human Rights Reporting

Journalists covering international and national social justice issues regularly encounter claims of human rights violations. The decades old human rights movement evolved from the scorched earth of the World Wars, when millions of refugees and survivors of genocide demanded justice. Current world crises from the Syrian Civil War to climate change to the persistent attacks on the rights of women have led to more demands for human rights. Nations seldom sanction themselves for violating the rights of citizens and refugees, and the international bodies formed to address human rights violations are often accurately described as toothless. In this course, we will look at human rights from a journalist’s perspective, and we will cover the efforts of the United Nations, NGOs, activists and human rights organizations to ensure human rights for all individuals. We will look at the history and evolution of today’s international human rights institutions, and their policies and shortcomings. And we will look at journalism’s role in human rights. Many examples exist showing that without reporting, human rights violations proceed without international condemnation. How are these issues best covered? What are best practices and ethical considerations? What tools and sources are most useful in reporting often complicated entanglements of human rights? What are our obligations to the most vulnerable? How can we represent victims of human rights violations ethically and with respect?

M.A. Politics Fall Seminar

In the fall, students In the M.A. Politics seminar will learn about the formation of the nation state – why it won out over sprawling, multi-ethnic empires or city states. We use this rich scholarship to help us understand why there is not a coherent central state in Afghanistan or Somalia. Students will learn about the origins of nationalism: why are people willing to die – and kill – for something (the nation) that made little sense to people of earlier centuries? They use that understanding to decode emerging situations of ethnic conflict, resurgent nationalism and populism. The seminar also examines the dynamics of collective behavior -- what happens when people get together to effect change, and under what circumstances do political and social movements succeed or fail? Scholars from relevant fields and journalists covering these issues will visit the class on a regular basis. Recent guests have included behavioral economist Robert Frank, journalist William Finnegan and historian Mahmood Mamdani. 


M.A. Politics Spring Seminar

The spring semester of the M.A. Politics seminar focuses on political institutions. Just about everywhere in the world, there are political parties, interest groups, legislatures, executives, judiciaries, regulatory agencies, and so on. The seminar looks at how these developed and the varied forms they take, using the United States as the primary, but not exclusive, example. Readings are a mix of political theory, empirical political science, and journalism. Assignments aim to teach students to understand the political personalities and events that journalists cover into an institutional context. Recent guests include journalist Emily Bazelon, political scientist Robert Y. Shapiro, political scientist Kimberley Johnson and law professor Olivier Sylvain.


Reporting in Conflict Zones

What’s the true human toll of conflict? With few independent observers in areas of conflict, journalists play an essential role in conveying the costs of war, its impact on local communities, and holding conflict actors to account.

The reporters who undertake this work confront challenges that go beyond navigating violence and chaos on the ground. The best among them also make sense of complex historical and political contexts; they pick up new languages and dialects; they ethically interview vulnerable populations; they resist sensationalist narratives and misinformation; they clear incessant logistical and bureaucratic hurdles; and they learn how to adapt when, inevitably, things don’t go as planned.

In this course, students will gain a sound framework for reporting in conflict zones in the contemporary media landscape. Over 14 classes, we’ll read, watch and deconstruct some of the best pieces of conflict reporting over the last decade, often going behind the scenes with the reporters themselves. Key themes include:

  • Preparing For Conflict Reporting
  • Safety & Security
  • Developing Contacts
  • Learning Local & Historical Context
  • Identifying Misinformation
  • Collecting Data On The Ground
  • Ethical Minefields
  • Sensitive Interviewing
  • Going Beyond Conflict
  • The Economics Of Foreign Reporting
  • Dealing With The Unexpected