Skepticism 101 (an intro to media)

A syllabus for first-year students at Northeastern University.

Interpreting the Day’s News (JRNL 1150)

Fall 2015

Monday, Wednesday and Thursday, 8 to 9:05 a.m.

Instructor: Betsy O’Donovan

Office hours: By appointment, usually during evenings/weekends. I am looking forward to getting to know you and your ideas. Please schedule at least one 20-minute appointment during the term. Don’t be scared if you have nothing to say; I make conversation for a living.


Look. Literally every one of you has the tools — well, at least the technological tools, and probably plenty of others — to start a media company. They are in your backpack. Not even that: They are in your pocket.

This raises some questions, which we’re going to discuss in our first class and every subsequent class this semester. For example: Who is a “journalist”? What is “news”? How do you assess the quality of information that you receive? There are a few studies that argue that your age cohort, which has been exposed to a more relentless assault of constant information than any other, has also become a highly skeptical group of consumers. If true, amazing. We’ll refine that. But skepticism alone is paralyzing (if you don’t think you can trust anyone, you never act on any information). You need to get to skepticism-plus, which is what this course is about. Skepticism plus investigation. Skepticism plus critical faculties. Skepticism plus the ability to see through your own biases and inevitable errors.

This is particularly true for those of you who intend to pursue journalism as a career. You must become the most critical consumers — the journalism adage is “If your mother says she loves you, check it out.”

We’re going to spend a ton of time in this class thinking about the hidden levers and pulleys that affect the presentation of a daily news product — from the silent nudgings of a reporter’s mind to blatant, mob-minded intimidation like GamerGate.

Let’s go.

A tiny bit about your instructor

Journalist since 1998, working around the U.S. Reporter, copy editor, city editor, editorial page editor, editor, digital strategist. Newspapers, magazines, television, radio, web. B.A. in English lit (Wake Forest), M.Phil. in writing (Trinity College Dublin), Nieman fellowship (Harvard). Sympathetic listener. High expectations. Quiet voice — if you can’t hear me, remind me to speak up.

Requirements for this class

There is no required textbook for Interpreting the Day’s News. There is a stack of reading below, there will be more throughout the semester, and there’s a lot of supplemental (and generally interesting) reading on our course Pinterest board (

This course requires that you be a well-informed media consumer. At a minimum, you must read a national newspaper every day (the subscription-based site is highly recommended and discounted to students; The Washington Post is free to anyone with a .edu email account). Be prepared to discuss specific stories in class. The same goes for The Huntington News every week.

I will assign individual articles from The New York Times and other subscription-based news organizations that you will be able to read without a paid subscription. If you were to try reading those sites on a daily basis, though, you would quickly run into their paywalls.

There are plenty of free options: NPR, CNN, The Christian Science Monitor, The Guardian, Al Jazeera English and BBC News. For local news, spend some time with WBUR, WGBH News, and the websites of local television stations.

You can also get your news with a side of interpretation (and/or opinion) from Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post on the left to The Daily Caller and National Review Online on the right. Also Drudge. Also BuzzFeed.

No one keeps up with everything. Even journalists have to stop tweeting and start writing sometime. This class is, in part, about helping you discern which sources of news present you with the broadest and best mix of news. (I recommend Twitter, for starters.)

School of Journalism attendance policy

The School of Journalism requires that you attend at least 80 percent of all scheduled class meetings. If you miss 20 percent or more of scheduled classes for any reason, you will automatically fail. Every absence will, obviously, affect your class participation, which will be factored into your final grade.

Class begins at 8 a.m. Given my own feelings about the hour, here is some leeway: I will take attendance around 8:10. If you come in after attendance is called, it will be counted as a half-absence. I’d rather you show up late than not at all, but don’t make a production number out of it.

University statement regarding academic honesty

Northeastern University is committed to the principles of intellectual honesty and integrity. All members of the Northeastern community are expected to maintain complete honesty in all academic work, presenting only that which is their own work in tests and all other assignments. If you have any questions regarding proper attribution of the work of others, please contact me prior to submitting the work for evaluation.

A personal note: The contemptible offenses of journalism include fabrication and plagiarism. Commit either of these and you can expect to receive an “F” for the course, with probable referral to OSCCR.

And I owe you an attribution: Sections of this syllabus are based on syllabuses prepared by other instructors, including Dan Kennedy.

Assignments, deadlines and grades

A valuable caveat: I am a challenging grader and I don’t extend extra credit, but I am interested in your success in this course and, especially, in how well you grasp the concepts and skills this class presents. Your grade should not be a surprise to you — I am happy to provide on-the-spot assessments on request, and to help students who put in work. “Put in work,” in this case, means advance planning and consultation with me — make an appointment to review your paper or ask questions BEFORE you turn it in for a grade.

There are no make-ups for missing work. It’s due when it’s due.

30 percent: Short tests

During the semester we’ll have three tests on the readings and class discussions. These will be held on Oct. 1, Oct. 29 and Nov. 19. The tests will consist of short essays and/or multiple choice, and should take you no more than a half-hour. Mark these dates on your calendar — there will be no make-ups. Each of these will count for 10 percent of your final grade.

10 percent: Pop quizzes

We’ll also have a few unannounced quizzes on current events to make sure that you’re keeping up on the news. These quizzes will count cumulatively for 10 percent of your final grade. Again, there will be no make-ups. At the end of the semester I will drop your lowest grade on these quizzes. If you missed a quiz, that’s the one I will drop.

30 percent: Final exam

The final exam will comprise a series of take-home questions, handed out near the end of the semester and due during exam week at a time to be announced. This will count for 30 percent of your final grade.

20 percent: Final paper

Throughout the course of the term, I will ask you to take (without reporting your results) Implicit Association Tests from Harvard’s Project Implicit. Twenty percent of your final grade will be based on a 1,500- to 2,000-word paper that addresses how you perceive a particular bias or implicit association playing out in the professional news media, and reviewing (or proposing) ways to correct it. This paper will be due on Nov. 23. (Look how much you’ll get to enjoy Thanksgiving!)

10 percent: Show up, be smart, stay engaged

The remaining 10 percent will be based on your class participation and attendance.

Special accommodations

If you have physical, psychiatric or learning disabilities that may require accommodations for this course, please meet with me after class or during conference hours to discuss what adaptations might be helpful to you. The Disability Resource Center, 20 Dodge Hall (x2675), can provide you with information and assistance. The university requires that you provide documentation of your disability to the DRC.

Course evaluations

The College of Arts, Media and Design has asked that the following language be included in each syllabus: CAMD considers student feedback essential and requires all students to complete TRACE evaluations at the end of the semester. You will be asked to provide a screen shot to your instructor that reflects your participation. Note that you can, anonymously, opt out of completing the survey and still obtain the screen shot that satisfies the TRACE requirement.

Semester schedule

The schedule and readings for Interpreting the Day’s News are meant to be flexible in order to accommodate guest speakers and big news stories. The following is a rough guide.

Week 1: Sept. 9, 10

  • Class topic: What is news? What is the “news media”?
  • Reading: Start reading a newspaper every day, if you don’t already; “Principles of Journalism,” from Bill Kovach and Tom Rosenstiel’s book “The Elements of Journalism”

Week 2: Sept. 14, 16, 17

Week 3: Sept. 21, 23 (no class on Sept. 24)

  • Class topic: The news, a recent history
  • Reading: “Breaking the News” by David Skok and Clay Christensen, Nieman Reports Magazine, Fall 2012 (pp. 6–20)

Week 4: Sept. 28, 30, Oct. 1 (TEST)

Week 5: Oct. 5, 7, 8

Week 6: Oct. 14, 15 (no class Oct. 12)

  • Class topic: Who influences the news, and how?
  • Reading: Familiarize yourselves with the websites of the Media Research Center, which tracks media bias from a conservative perspective, and Media Matters for America, which does the same from a liberal point of view.

Week 7: Oct. 19, 21, 22

  • Class topic: Citizen and civic journalism
  • Reading: To be posted

Week 8: Oct. 25, 28, 29 (TEST)

  • Class topic: Activist journalism
  • Reading: To be posted.
  • We will have the second of our three tests on Thursday

Week 9: Nov. 2, 4, 5

  • Class topic: Ethics and the law
  • Reading: Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics

Week 10: Nov. 9, 12 (no class Nov. 11)

Week 11: Nov. 16, 18, 19 (TEST)

  • Class topic: Data visualization and the rise of nonlinear storytelling
  • Reading: “The Data Journalism Handbook,” edited by Jonathan Gray, Liliana Bounegru and Lucy Chambers; please read the five brief chapters listed under the Introduction; there will be supplemental readings from Alberto Cairo.
  • There will be a test on Thursday

Week 12: Nov. 23 (No class Nov. 25, 26) (PAPER DUE)

Week 13: Nov. 30, Dec. 2, 3

Week 14: Dec. 7, 9

  • Class topic: Final exam prep, feedback and closing thoughts

Finals week

  • Your take-home final exam will be due at a time to be announced