M.S. Documentary Specialization

A select program for M.S. students who spend a third semester making a short documentary. 

We train students to succeed in the expanding world of documentaries. You learn writing, shooting, sound recording, editing and the business of documentaries. Classes are small, focused and hands-on. 

Film Fridays

The Documentary Program

The Documentary program combines world‐class training in how to be a reporter with professional skills in visual storytelling. Students spend 10 months learning how to develop sources; find and verify information; use data and develop visual skills. They learn camera work, sound recording and editing. They also learn the business side of documentary production – grant writing, negotiations, rights and clearances and how to develop a winning production trailer.

The additional semester – either the summer or the fall – allows students to produce and edit their video Master’s Project. Documentary students generally work in teams and get individual coaching from advisers who are recognized documentary producers. We expect the resulting films to be published: online, on cable or on broadcast.

During the year, students in the Documentary Program meet some of the world’s most acclaimed documentarians who visit our classes and show their work at our regular Film Fridays series. Recent guests have included Alex Gibney, Rory Kennedy, Stanley Nelson, Sarah Burns, Kirsten Johnson, Barbara Koppel, Matt Heinemann, Josh Oppenheimer and Ezra Edelman.

Under the direction of Professors June Cross and Betsy West, students undertake courses in journalism production, visual storytelling, camerawork and editing. Faculty advisers have included Phil Bertelsen, Tom Casciato, Nina Chaudry,  Julie Cohen, Rachel Dretzin, Sabrina Gordon, Pamela Hogan, Andy Fredericks and Simon Surowicz.

Who Should Apply

The admissions committee seeks applicants who can articulate their passion for documentary filmmaking. The Journalism School is committed to building a diverse student population and we encourage applications from students of all ethnic and economic backgrounds. Previous experience shooting and editing is welcome but not necessary.

Curriculum

During the fall semester, students take the core Reporting class, then test into Video 1 (for the inexperienced) or Video 2 (for those with demonstrated experience in shooting and editing). Beginning videographers are expected to develop their skills. Concurrently, during the first semester, students learn about the documentary canon and workshop story ideas for their own films. Projects are approved for production by the time the spring semester begins.

During the spring semester, students get hands‐on production experience and learn to craft compelling stories. Students are encouraged to work in teams and by the end of the semester they pitch a work‐in‐progress trailer to a group of commissioning editors from major outlets. In the past, these editors have included representatives from the Sundance Documentary Fund, HBO and CNN.

Students complete their Master's Project documentary in either the summer or the fall. They graduate in December at a special graduation event. The following day, their films are showcased at the annual Columbia Journalism School DocFest.

Classes

In addition to the required classes, Documentary Program students choose from the many spring classes that are open to all students. 

Please note: The classes listed here represent recent offerings at the Journalism School. 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.

Documentary Specialization Seminar

Multimedia Storytelling

Multimedia Storytelling: Science & Environment

Video I

Video II

Video Storytelling

Student Work

Soraya Auer and Nadim Roberts '15 M.S.

Doc '15 students Soraya Auer and Nadim Roberts made a documentary about a ballet dancer's journey from the projects to the stage.

Watch the trailer.
Doc '15 students Raza Naqvi and Sara Obeidat

Doc '15 students Raza Naqvi and Sara Obeidat's film explores how three autistic men find purpose through running.

See the trailer.
Doc '15 student Amina Mujtaba

Doc '15 student Amina Mujtaba's film explores the cultural practice of arranged marriages in a contemporary American society.

Watch the trailer.

Faculty

Duy Linh Tu

Associate Professor of Professional Practice & Director, Digital Media Program 

Betsy West

Fred W. Friendly Professor of Professional Practice in Media and Society

Lisa R. Cohen

Director, duPont/Professional Prizes; Adjunct Faculty