Adjuncts Link to Working World
As active working journalists throughout Chicagoland, adjunct faculty members in Columbia's journalism department offer a vital link between today's newsrooms and today's classrooms. Through their own highly regarded work, as well as their professional connections, they teach students how to pursue stories as career opportunities.
Sam Roe, an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, co-authored "Playing with Fire,'' a series exposing the deceptive campaign by chemical and tobacco industries to promote the use of flame retardants. The series has won several national awards, including the prestigious Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting, given by the Joan Shorenstein Center on the Press, Politics and Public Policy, part of the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University. It also won the Nieman Foundation’s Taylor Family Award for Fairness in Newspapers, the Scripps Howard Roy W. Howard Award and the Society of American Business Editors and Writers’ top investigative prize for daily newspapers over 400,000 circulation.
“The work we do in class each week is very similar to the work I do when I’m reporting and writing stories,” said Pulitzer Prize-winner Roe, investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune.
“Also, in class I try to impress upon the students the importance of
pursuing high-impact, public service journalism. And that’s a core
mission at the Tribune.”
A recent Chicago magazine package -- “Gangs and Politicians: An Unholy Alliance” -- by Columbia journalism instructors David Bernstein and Noah Isackson was another example of in-depth, intrepid reporting, this time exposing the troubling relationship between criminals and city council members in Chicago. Bernstein and Isackson are finalists for a National Magazine Award in the reporting category.
“Noah and I, we really went down a lot of rabbit holes,” Bernstein said of the story that began with a tip from a City Hall insider. “The more we reported it, the more we uncovered, and it was just leading us in new directions.”
Some of those directions led them to challenging sources. “It took a while to earn some people’s trust,” said Isackson. “Some info could have damaged personal or professional lives or both.”
After two years of reporting, their persistence paid off. Bernstein and Isackson were able to give readers a comprehensive look at how some Chicago aldermen and aldermanic candidates have attempted to win influence over the city’s largest gangs in order to see results on Election Day.
As their article points out, this comes at a price for citizens of those wards, where aldermen return the support of gang elements by “looking the other way” and creating safe havens for crime.
“People tell us they’re shocked, but they’re not surprised,” said Isackson.
“This is sort of a cultural thing, and a political thing. It’s been going on for decades and decades and I’m glad we shed light on it, but I hope we can do more,” said Bernstein. He said that they have received more tips since the article was published and that it was definitely a story that they wanted to follow up on.
As determined reporters, they are also able to share professional insights with their students.
“I try to get them to appreciate the value of reporting, how important it is to be accurate,” said Isackson. “We talk about how a journalist is a witness. We talk about being the eyes and ears for the public, how there’s a lot of responsibility.”
Isackson said that balancing reporting while teaching also helps him understand what students are going through as they work on their reporting assignments, especially when he is having trouble finding sources for stories himself.
Bernstein said that in his classes he emphasizes an appreciation for the craft and ethics of journalism, especially the amount of work that goes into each story.
Other adjuncts at Columbia also feel professionally inspired by the opportunity to work with students:
“The students keep me current on their own media/journalism issues, and that, in turn, can help me be a better thinker in the industry,” said Natalie Y. Moore, South Side bureau reporter for Chicago Public Radio and the author of two books.
“For me, teaching keeps me balanced and sane,” said Laura Heller, writer for Traditional Home magazine, Houzz.com, Forbes.com, and Yahoo. “As a freelance writer, I spend so much time alone in my home office that interacting with students one or two days a week is my opportunity to stay connected to the world.”