Faculty Spotlight: Jackie Spinner
By Benita Zepeda (BA '11)
Assistant professor of Journalism Jackie Spinner started her career early by creating her own neighborhood newspaper, The Daily Oink, at the age of 13. Although Spinner said she always knew she wanted to be a journalist, she never thought her career would take her to report in 14 countries.
Her first foreign assignment came as the Baghdad bureau chief for the Washington Post. She went to Iraq and Afghanistan in 2004. “I didn’t dream of being a foreign correspondent because I didn’t think it was something attainable for somebody like me,” Spinner said. “I come from a small town in Illinois [Decatur] and my family didn’t have a lot of money. I scraped and clawed my way to get where I am in my career.”
Spinner joined the Columbia community in fall 2011 after being a foreign correspondent at the Washington Post, where she worked for 14 years.
While overseas, Spinner helped start the first independent student newspaper at The American University of Iraq and in Oman at Sultan Qaboos University. Teaching objective journalism practices in a country where the media are controlled isn’t a simple task, and Spinner said that’s because there is no model in Iraq for the type of journalism in the United States.
“In a country that is just emerging, or in a country where there is this real feeling of nationalism, telling someone, ‘Look, you’re not Iraqi today, you’re a journalist,’ is an extraordinary thing,” Spinner said. “I did that as a foreign correspondent. I didn’t want to go to cover a war or go into a country as an American. I didn’t even go as a woman. I went as a journalist, because that is what we do.”
At Columbia, Spinner teaches International Reporting, Reporting and Writing II, and graduate-level courses. She said she enjoys Columbia’s environment because she is valued as both a journalist and an academic. Living by those values, Spinner keeps herself busy.
During winter break 2011, she went to Israel and the West Bank where she reported for the Christian Science Monitor and Foreign Policy magazine. She held two workshops on using social media for the U.S. Consulate General in Jerusalem and one workshop for the Palestinian Authority.
Spinner was named the Fishback Visiting Writer at Virginia’s Washington and Lee University and traveled to the school in February to give a public lecture on war reporting and objectivity. She will speak at other universities, as well as continue to direct a combat photography exhibit at the New York City Fire Museum, which was featured in the New York Times in February. Spinner also oversees a nonprofit organization called Angel Says: Read, which allows individuals to donate old books in Belize.
“In most countries where English isn’t the official language, people are trying to learn English,” Spinner said. “Those are the books that are most expensive to buy. I donated books in Iraq for the same reason.”
Although her accomplishments and projects are admirable, Spinner said she is most proud of Arez Hussen Ahmed, the first student editor-in-chief of the independent Iraqi newspaper being inducted into the College Media Hall of Fame.
“I’ve never won a Pulitzer, and I’m OK with that. There is still time,” Spinner said with a laugh. “Nothing is more fulfilling to me than my students, and a student I have helped teach, when they win an award, that’s more important than anything I have done. Arez Hussen Ahmed, I am proud of that kid because he will do more in his career than I did, and that’s the way it’s supposed to be as a teacher.”