Course Syllabus

Public Affairs Reporting
JOUR 331, Spring 2011, Section 1
Instructor: Professor Dennis Swibold, DAH 427
Office Hours: 12:40 to 2 p.m. Monday and
Wednesday, or by appointment
Phone: 243-2230 (office), 721-0826 (home).

About this course
Democracy needs accurate and timely information about civic institutions. That’s the reason for journalism’s First Amendment protection, and it’s the idea behind this course. This semester you will learn to cover the local justice system and local governments, institutions empowered to regulate your behavior, tax your income and solve community problems. You may also report on other local beats crucial to the well-being of Missoulians.

By the end, you should have a better understanding of journalism’s role in democracy and of the ethical and professional challenges beat reporters face daily. You should understand the pace of daily reporting and its demand that you be accurate, clear, thorough, fair, ethical, productive and punctual. You’ll also get an introduction to public records and how to use them. Successful students should be able to succeed as interns with local news organizations.

Class meetings
We'll meet from 12:40 to 2 p.m. on Mondays and Wednesdays in DAH 210. I expect you to attend and participate in every class. If you miss class without clearing it with me, I won't allow you to make up any of the work assigned. Treat this course like a job.

SCHEDULING – Keep the following nights free for deadline reporting: Feb. 7 (City Council), Feb. 14 (City Council), Feb. 28 (City Council); March 7 (City Council), March 14. We won’t hold class on Feb. 21 (President’s Day) or from April 4-8 (Spring Break).

Building access
For afterhours access to Don Anderson Hall, complete and submit this form online: by February 4. Complete only one request form per semester – be sure to list all courses you are taking. A door code will be assigned and provided to you via email. This request will also activate your Griz Card for the outside door and, if needed, Room 101. Codes will remain active until the last day of the semester.

How we’ll work
Let’s make this experience as real as we can. I’m your editor, and you’re my reporters. You’ll do deadline reporting almost every week of the course, and I’ll give you detailed feedback. Besides producing stories that I assign, you will generate articles from beats you choose to cover. I expect you to keep up with the news, keep up with your beat, attend every class, read all assigned materials and contribute to class. Discussions will range over a variety of topics, but are sure to include:

• Reporting – We'll talk about the importance of accuracy, good news judgment and enterprise. We'll talk about techniques for finding and getting the story (interviewing, sourcing, research strategies, etc.)
• News writing – We'll emphasize clarity, organization and style, and we'll discuss various storytelling formats and techniques.
• Fairness – We'll discuss how to avoid bias in your work by reporting all sides of a story and keeping the context clear. We'll study how to avoid thoughtless stereotypes that can undermine your credibility with an increasingly diverse audience. We'll talk about libel and ethics and the damage that incompetent, lazy and sleazy journalists can do to your profession.
• Diversity – You can’t truly serve a community if you ignore the perspectives and needs of racial or ethnic minorities. We’ll talk about how be more inclusive in your work. One of your beat stories must focus on underserved or underreported people on your beat.
• Power – We'll find out who has it, how it's used and how it's abused. We'll learn how journalists can help readers participate in democracy. We'll discuss how journalists sometimes abuse their power.

This is primarily a reporting and writing class, so I’ll expect you to write as if your stories were going to be published in a newspaper or on a news website. Those of you seeking broadcast internships will have several opportunities to present your stories in script format, should you choose to do so.

There is no required text for this course, but you’ll get lots of in-class handouts, and I’ll expect you to take notes on class lectures and critiques. I’ll also make several general reporting texts available you if you need them. Here are some titles I have that you might find helpful: The Associated Press Guide to News Writing, by Rene J. Cappon; News Reporting and Writing, by Melvin Mencher; The Investigative Reporter’s Handbook, by Houston, et al.

You must keep up with the news, especially on your beat. Start by reading the Missoulian and Kaimin every day online, and pay special attention to the news on your beats. Add a national newspaper or news magazine for a broader perspective and ideas you can localize. You can’t recognize news if you don’t know what’s been reported.

Follow the blog
You’ll find it at Check it regularly. You’ll find assignments, deadlines, class announcements, discussion topics and some of the class’s best reporting. You’ll be required to register at to post comments, but it’s free, so dive in.

I’ll base most of your grade on the articles you write. I will hold those stories to professional standards, which means that beyond good writing and reporting, I will consider them to be newsworthy and show some enterprise. Here’s the madness behind my grading method:

• An "A" story is one that is interesting, enterprising, timely, thorough, well-written, accurate, fair and in need of virtually no editing. In other words, the story is publishable.
• A "B" story is one that could be an "A" with minor editing or a little additional reporting.
• A "C" story is one that needs significant editing and additional reporting, or shows weak news judgment. A sloppily written but well-reported story might get you a C. A story based on only one source will rarely earn more than a “C.”
• A "D" story is one that it is unacceptable. It may be inaccurate, poorly written, barely researched, badly focused or all of the above.
• An "F" story is the one you fail to write or fail to hand in by deadline or any story that I determine to have been plagiarized or written from another reporter's notes. A story containing particularly egregious errors (a misspelled name, for instance) or too many mistakes in spelling, grammar and style may receive an "F," too.

Final course grades, using the plus/minus system, will be based on your performance on the following:

• Weekly reporting and beat assignments: 80 percent
• Participation, professionalism and attendance: 10 percent. I’ll also consider your contributions to the class discussions, ability to generate your own story ideas, etc. Students with more than two unexcused absences may fail the course.
• Improvement: 10 percent. I'll assess this based primarily on the improvement shown in your reporting and writing and in your ability to generate stories and meet deadlines.

REMEMBER: You must earn at least a “C” in this course to count its credits toward a journalism degree. You’re allowed only one opportunity to repeat the course.

Rewrite policy
You’ll do mandatory revisions on a few stories of my choosing this semester. Beyond that, you’ll always have the opportunity to rewrite a story. In most cases I won’t replace the original grade, but the improvement shown on rewrites figures into the final grade.

Get published
Until you get published, you’re just playing at being a journalist, so I'll push you to publish at least one story this semester. The Kaimin is your best bet. In any case, you should work as though every story you do may get published somewhere – and your sources should be told that. When a source agrees to tell you something on the condition that your story won't be printed, smile and explain why that won't work. However, never identify yourself as a reporter for the Kaimin or any other publication unless that publication has assigned you to do the story.

Plagiarism warning
Plagiarism is representing another's work as your own. In my book that includes writing a story based someone else's exclusive reporting. Students who plagiarize have failed this course and been suspended. The solution is simple: Do your own work, and attribute your sources.

Academic honesty
All students must practice academic honesty. Academic misconduct is subject to an academic penalty by the course instructor and/or a disciplinary sanction by the University. All students need to be familiar with the Student Conduct Code. The Code is available for review online at

No Double-Dipping
You may not submit any assignment that has previously or will be concurrently submitted for another class unless you receive my prior approval. To do so without permission will result in an “F” for the assignment and could result in an “F” for the course.

Accommodations for Students with Disabilities
This course is accessible to otherwise qualified students with disabilities. To request reasonable program modifications, please consult with me during the first week of classes. Disability Services for Students may assist the instructor and student in the accommodation process. For more information, visit the Disability Services website at

This is a tough course, not only because of the amount of work but also because that work will be examined critically. I'll try to mark everything on your story that an editor should catch, and we'll go over those problems in class. Don't take the criticism personally, but remember that reporting is serious work done under pressure and under the critical eye of editors, sources and readers. Learning to deal with that constructively is part of becoming a pro. Work hard, keep a sense of humor, and remember that there is life and maybe a job after Public Affairs Reporting.