Course: JRN445
Instructor: Stephens
F 2014

Description of Course Goals and Curriculum

JRN 445 is a seminar designed to give students an in-depth understanding of the strategies, tools, and legwork that go into producing impactful investigative news pieces, and the opportunity to apply that knowledge to their own reporting projects. The classroom becomes a newsroom and the professor the editor-in-chief. Students gain an appreciation of journalists’ power to discover corruption and wrongdoing through careful analysis of documents and human sources, and the systemic changes brought about by ‘speaking knowledge to power.’ Coursework consists of weekly readings, about 3 mid-length assignments (approximately 3-5 pages), and major investigative reporting project (approximately 10-15 pages). Although this course is not restricted to aspiring professional journalists or those with prior reporting experience, its major goal is to force students to switch from a news-consumer mindset to a news-producer perspective by getting them actually reporting. It aims to give students practical experience rather than simply communicate content.

Learning From Classroom Instruction

The class, consisting of about 12-15 students and the professor, meets once per week for three hours. The first 1.5 hours are usually devoted to discussion of the week’s assigned readings, a combination of journalism how-to guides and investigative articles that make use of (and thus illustrate for students) the strategies discussed in the how-to guides. The readings are meant to give students an idea of how they might carry out their own investigations, so noting methods and techniques that would be useful for your project is helpful. For the second half of almost every meeting, the professor brings in an acclaimed investigative journalist to discuss his/her most prominent projects and answer student questions. Anyone can read the product (articles) of theses journalists what’s unique about the class is that you can ask specific questions about their processes.  Finally, there is time for students to update each other on their reporting progress and their classmates’ feedback and advice. Professor Stephens aims to make the classroom into a newsroom—he does not spend much time lecturing but instead prefers to have students dominate the discussion, challenging him and each other and building on one another’s ideas. Needless to say, discussion participation is important both for your learning and your grade. Completing the readings with an eye to the reporting strategies and documents the journalists used (as opposed to focusing on the minute details of the story) can be very helpful in preparing for class. Here are some questions to ask and guide your weekly reading: How did the journalist find the evidence she needed? Were the documents open to the public, like tax returns, or were they very challenging to obtain? Was an employee disgruntled enough to seek out the journalist, or did the journalist have to convince her to participate? How did the journalist turn this evidence into a story that the public would want to read? Try to identify other guiding questions.

Learning For and From Assignments

The course is broken into two parts—for the first half, students complete weekly readings and three short reporting projects (about 3-5 pages each). This part of the course is meant to prepare students to embark on their independent, in-depth reporting project which begins at the course’s halfway point. The readings and short projects give students examples of successful investigations, familiarize them with the resources they will use for their semester project (such as tax return databases and websites recording campaign donation patterns), and push them to apply the strategies they read about (such as how to interview effectively). Be sure to focus on how to hone these skills at least as well as the articles themselves. It is helpful to allow more time than you might expect for these projects, especially any that require conducting interviews—you can’t call your subject at midnight before the project is due and expect to turn in a quality article a few hours later. Additionally, meeting with your professor after turning your paper in can be extremely helpful for future assignments—you can find out what you did well, what you can improve on, and build a working relationship with your “editor-in-chief.” For the second half of the semester, Professor Stephens reduces the weekly reading load so that students can focus on completing an independent investigation and turning it into an approx. 10-15 page article. This project is most likely extremely different from any other project you’ve undertaken at Princeton—you are tasked with uncovering an instance of corruption, exploitation, injustice, etc., something you cannot do by googling or checking out a pile of books from the library. You will likely be interviewing people, going through legal and financial documents, and exploring—shoe-leather reporting. The emphasis is on what you can dig up, and how you do it, not how beautifully written your final project is. Like any major research project, this investigation can take a LOT of time. You might fail to find evidence of wrongdoing, struggle to gain access to important documents or people, or discover that your investigation has already been done. To avoid these pitfalls, it’s helpful to 1) START EARLY—this project takes a lot of time. If you hit a dead end, it’s better to do so early. 2) Put some thought into what you want to investigate. Consider your professor’s advice, your interests, the sorts of documents and people you could feasibly access, transportation options, and the amount of time you have to devote to the project. 3) Once you choose a topic, commit to it. Chances are, you will find something important and worth writing about it you try hard enough. Talk to your professor if you’re concerned; changing your topic in the middle of the process is tough and time consuming. But, by meeting with your professor, you might be able to help you reframe what you are doing so that you can use what you’ve done and not have to start over.

External Resources

MEET WITH YOUR PROFESSOR!!!! Professor Stephens requires you to meet with him for at least 15 minutes every other week. These are great opportunities to talk through your progress, performance on previous papers, general interest in journalism, and any other questions you may have. Meet with other journalism professors who teach at Henry House. Sometimes they have connections or troubleshooting strategies that your professor might not have. Plus, they are great resources for any future journalism.The Center for Digital Humanities and the various libraries have great advice for research on your semester project.

What Students Should Know About This Course For Purposes Of Course Selection

This class counts as an upper-level class for the Journalism certificate program, and is a good course to take if you are interested in pursuing the certificate. It is often taught by the JRN program head, Joe Stephens, and is a good jumping-off point for other courses in the department. No prerequisites are necessary, however, and the skills you develop in this class are highly applicable to your independent research and work in other classes. Although this class is listed as 400 level, it is suitable for freshman through seniors as long as you are willing to put in the effort. No prior journalism experience necessary. If the class is full when you try to sign up, email the professor or Margo Bresnen—spaces often open up during Add/Drop period, and some professors will even open up extra spots for really motivated students. Because this class is so small and discussion-based, you really get to know your classmates and professor. The visiting journalists and frequent off-campus trips (we went to the newsrooms of NPR and Washington Post) tie the class really closely to the real world, and provide great opportunities for networking. This class can take a lot of time and effort, but can also be very rewarding.
Investigative Journalism: Accountability Reporting

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