Expert Commentary

Political reporting syllabus (updated 2016): Covering elections, governance and the democratic process

Semester-long course on political reporting, including covering governance in the United States, the democratic process, and how to cover elections.

GOP debate, 2012 (Fox News)
(Fox News)

This course teaches students the fundamentals of covering the American political world, as well as larger concepts that can help generate deeper context and understanding. Many reporters at some time in their careers are tossed into covering local races for school boards, city councils or county offices. Others make careers out of covering large city governments or state and federal government. This course is designed to provide a broad overview of this beat, from the grassroots to the White House.

The animating idea of this syllabus is that political reporting should be informed by deeper knowledge. Theory and practice need not be at odds. Students can learn the “nut-and-bolts” through deadline exercises and spot assignments; but they can also develop a deeper sense of research insights about the system and its structural contours.

The course is built on the belief that the purpose of journalism is to serve the community and the purpose of political journalism is to give citizens the information they need to participate in civic affairs. To those ends, political reporting here covers government and governance, campaigns and candidates, tactics and strategies and policy issues in the public arena. Political journalists should serve as watchdogs to assure honest governance and campaigns and seek to focus their coverage on issues of importance to society and not just daily “spin.”

Course description
Emphasis is placed on deadline writing and critiquing of political and public policy news. Students are also encouraged to explore the use of social media to cover and explain campaigns and policy. Use of materials from Journalist’s Resource is also required to add depth to spot news coverage. The course encourages familiarity with the methods and insights of political and social science; the selection of readings includes many pieces of original research. Students should come away with the confidence to use such materials to inform their future reporting.

Learning objectives
The purpose of this course is to help students develop:

  • Critical thinking skills about political issues and dynamics
  • Strong instincts for finding good political stories
  • Sharp writing skills and an attention to detail and nuance in reporting
  • The ability to operate effectively in deadline situations
  • A fluency with political and social science research methods and insights

Course syllabus
This syllabus is a general plan for the course and its development; any changes deemed necessary by the instructor will be announced during class. Often, breaking political news or developments can and should change the syllabus. Debates, candidate appearances or spot news developments during a semester provide a learning opportunity for students to be assigned to cover events and critique media performances.

Required texts

  • Shanto Iyengar, Jennifer A, McGrady, Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide. W.W.Norton, 2011.
  • Doris Graber, Mass Media & American Politics. Congressional Quarterly Press, 8th edition, 2010.

Recommended books and articles

Required daily readings and news consumption

A few minutes of each class period will be devoted to the past week’s major political stories and how they were covered. Examples of good stories and bad stories in all media should be critiqued.

Guest speakers
Instructor should seek to bring to class or Skype with political reporters and editors as well as political communications professionals such as pollsters or press secretaries. Subjects of discussion can include what they believe to be good and bad political reporting as well as the nature of their relationships with the media.

One paper is required: Write a report about social media that considers some of the following questions: (1) How are political campaigns using social media? (2) How are political journalists using social media to cover campaigns? (3) What might journalists do to improve their use of social media to cover politics? (4) How does all of this affect citizen participation in campaigns and democracy? The paper should be long enough to cover the subject adequately, but no more than 2,500 words. One good background piece to consider is “Effects of the Internet on Politics: Research roundup,” at Journalist’s Resource. Other relevant readings can be found in the syllabus in week 7, class 2. The paper is due in class that session.

Week 1 | Week 2 | Week 3 | Week 4 | Week 5 | Week 6 | Week 7
Week 8 | Week 9 | Week 10 | Week 11 | Week 12 | Week 13

Week 1: Overview on politics and the press

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Class 1: What makes for good political reporting?

Topic: Politics is often portrayed as a “game.” Indeed, sports and metaphors pepper political writing. Unlike other “games,” political ones have real world consequences: war or peace; high taxes or low; jobs or unemployment; health care or not. We discuss what constitutes “politics,” why it is important and how it affects daily lives; we will also look at the purpose of political reporting and what goes into good political reporting. Just how do political journalists do their job and what do they do? What are their goals, and whom do they serve? What are their typical biases and assumptions?


Assignment: Assessment of your own consumption of political journalism; 300 to 350 words, due at the start of the next class. You should list the average amount of time per week you spend consuming political news, the sources (i.e., Wall Street Journal,, CNN, etc.), medium (print, on-line, broadcast), and possible biases (does the source have inherent political, ethical, gender, race religious, economic, or other biases). What did you like/dislike about the political journalism you consume?

Class 2: Framing and crafting a political story

Topic: We will discuss how to write a political story and put facts in wider context. Other subjects include understanding your audience and the news itself; providing balance; how to write tight, declarative sentences, use quotes, and break through writers’ block; and work with editors.


Assignment: In-class deadline writing exercise. You will be given the text of a recent speech or news program; write and submit a 250-word story about it by the end of the class period. The purpose of the exercise is to give you an idea of what it feels like to produce deadline political copy.

Week 2: Local-level politics, part 1

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Class 1: City and town hall reporting

Topic: Covering local politics is the meat-and-potatoes beat of American journalism. Along with the police and courts, this has long been a “starter” beat for many reporters. However, today many news organizations don’t cover it regularly but instead parachute reporters in to spot news events.


  • Mass Media & American Politics, Chapter 4, “News Making and Reporting Routines”; Chapter 10, “Covering the Justice System and State and Local News.”
  • Media Politics: A Citizen’s Guide, Chapter 4, “Reporters, Official Sources, and the Decline of Adversarial Journalism.”
  • “Ten Hints for Covering Government,” Journalist’s Resource, 2011.

Class 2: Political reporter as watchdog

Topic: The role of the reporter is both to inform citizens about the formal workings of government and to serve as a watchdog on potential waste and abuse. We talk about what it takes to serve in this role and the structural factors that often contribute to corruption.


Assignment: Attend a city council, town council or school board meeting. Write a 500-word story focusing on the most important issue addressed in the hearing; in addition, write a brief memo outlining story ideas that came from the meeting that you think merit further investigation.

Week 3: Local-level politics, part 2

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Class 1: Budgets, boards and departments

Topic: A political reporter’s capacity to write great stories will only be as strong as his or her grasp of policy details and the specific mechanisms of power. Understanding how governance works and a willingness to examine it critically are crucial, no matter the area — from school board policies and public safety agencies to land use projects and municipal budgets.


Class 2: States, agencies, laws and regulations

Topic: Laws, rules and regulations can vary widely among the states, and their enforcement can be very uneven at the county and local levels. Part of a political reporter’s role is to hold agencies and officials accountable for the rules they oversee and the responsibilities to the public they have.


Assignment: Read the study “Public Participation, Procedural Fairness and Evaluations of Local Governance” in Journalist’s Resource and use it as a lens through which to see the budgeting process for a town, city council or local governing board of any kind. Given the study’s findings, examine the rules, procedures and opportunities for public input on the budget. How participatory is the process for constituents? Interview several people in the community involved in the budget, then write an 800-word blog post about these dynamics and your findings.

Week 4: Civic engagement and participation

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Class 1: Citizens and governance

Topics: Though some citizens have a strong sense of civic duty, many do not, and commentators have long noted apathy and alienation among segments of the populace. A reporter is sometimes one of the few people at hearings and meetings. How can a reporter better connect the citizenry to the workings of government? What is the reporter’s role in all of this?


Class 2: Voting and participation

Topics: Nonvoting is far more prevalent in the United States than in nearly all other democracies. Elections, ballot measures and votes often record the opinions of tiny fractions of communities. Why is this? What implications does this dynamic carry for political reporters? What does this mean for American democracy? And how do the changing demographics of the country intersect with this issue?


Assignment: Read the study “Voter Participation in Presidential Primaries and Caucuses” and then interview 10 people of voting age about when they last voted and their thoughts on why they did or didn’t participate. Write an 800-word blog post about voter participation that is informed by the study and that includes information from your interviews.

Week 5: Political communication: Messages that matter

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Class 1: Spinning: How politicians use the media to make policy

Topic: We analyze how politicians use and control the media to lead public opinion. Vast resources and effort are used to stage events and manipulate reporters. Much of what is now called “governing” is simply developing and executing strategies designed to further a political agenda.


Class 2: How the media shape public opinion — scandal, sensation and getting it right

Topic: We examine the power and limitations of the media to shape public opinion and the tendency of the media to overplay scandal and sensationalize news. We look at the tactics that do and don’t work to shape how Americans view issues and those of politicians; we’ll discuss the difficulty of countering spin and misinformation once narratives are established, facts have been asserted and assumptions have become hardened.


Assignment: Review the available media releases and press appearances of a prominent politician over the past month that relate to a particular policy issue. Write an article about the politician’s apparent strategy, and interview sources who can speak to the effectiveness of the given messages.

Week 6: The campaign: Television

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Class 1: Television ads

Topic: We’ll chart evolution of political television commercials. To do this, let’s begin by going to starting with 1952 and watching a few commercials from each party in each cycle. Pay special attention to the 1952 “I Like Ike” ad and Kennedy ads in 1960 and contrast them with the “Daisy ad” run by the Democrats in 1964. Also watch the 1988 “Willie Horton” ad run by Republicans against Michael Dukakis. How are ads changing? What techniques do producers use? Are the Web ads replacing broadcast political commercials? Are negative ads effective and if so, in what way? How are stereotypes and prejudices used?


Class 2: Television

Topic: Television is the most important force in our culture. How do political figures use it? A news director or television broadcast producer or journalist could be a helpful guest for this session.


Assignment: Read the American Journal of Political Science study “Variability in Citizens’ Reactions to Different Types of Negative Campaigns” at Journalist’s Resource. Review some negative ads from the last campaign cycle and interview 10 citizens about their feelings with respect to negative campaigns. Write an 800-word blog presenting your understanding of how negative advertising works in contemporary American politics.

Week 7: The campaign: Money and new media

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Class 1: Campaign Finance

Topic: Who owns politicians? We try to make sense of campaign finance issues in the wake of recent court decisions.


Class 2: Internet campaigning and journalism

Topic: Since 2000, the Internet has become an increasingly crucial tool for organizing, campaigning and communicating. We look at how the digital space is being used by campaigns and activists.


In-class assignment: Campaign season means fast deadlines for reporters. You will be given the text of a recent speech or news program related to a political campaign. Write a 250-word story about it by the end of the class period. The purpose of the exercise is to give you an idea of what it feels like to produce political copy on a short deadline. Copy needs to be e-mailed to by the end of class.

Note: Social media paper due (instructions in syllabus introduction.)

Week 8: Polling and Election Day

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Class 1: Topic Polls and Exit Polls.

Topic: We’ll discuss use and abuse of polling, drafting questions, interpreting data and the pitfalls of writing about them.


Class 2: Election Day

Topic: Coverage on Election Day has brought out both the best and worst in American journalism. Premature verdicts and faulty trends are among the many sins committed by journalists. Still, the public has a hunger to know results, voters have often faced obstacles, and the political reporter’s role during this period remains crucial.


Assignment: Find a recent poll on a political issue that you think may be questionable. Analyze its results in an 800-word blog post and present some hypotheses as to why certain aspects of the polling may not tell the whole story. Be sure to look at the wording of the questions, the methodology, etc. Even if you cannot critique the poll’s statistical methods, at least ask critical questions about the poll’s approach and potential flaws. What questions might you put to polling experts?

Week 9: National politics and the federal system

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Class 1: Congress

Topic: In the process of making laws, the members of Congress represent various interests within American society, giving them voice and attention in the national legislature. That at least is the theory. In recent years, many observers have noted the accelerating partisanship of the body and the gridlock associated. We look at the implications for political reporting and the reporter’s role in covering the business of Congress.


Class 2: President and commander-in-chief

Topic: Presidential power depends on the president’s own abilities, but even more on circumstances — on whether the situation demands strong leadership and whether political support for that leadership exists. We look at the functioning of the White House, particularly the president’s “power to persuade.”


Assignment: Using the C-SPAN video library, locate and review videos relating to a single national security issue that was the subject of both a Congressional hearing and was featured in a speech by the president. Write a 1,000-word blog post referring to the two videos and examining the different tactics of rhetoric and persuasion, and political framings, around the issue. The ideas in the two political science studies listed above should inform your discussion.

Week 10: The interplay of the three branches

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Class 1: Legislative-executive dynamics

Topic: In America’s system of divided government, the constitutional power to enact legislation rests with Congress. Yet, on issues of national significance, the president often serves as “chief legislator.” The White House typically initiates major programs, setting the stage for congressional action on the proposal. We will discuss the interplay of the presidency and Congress in the making of laws, and how reporters can properly interpret these dynamics.


Class 2: The federal judicial system

Topic: Though their job is to deliver impartial verdicts, federal judges and justices are political officials — they constitute one of the three coequal branches of the national government. Because the Constitution is a sparsely worded document and must be applied to new and changing situations, a debate over exactly how the law should be interpreted and enforced has remained at the heart of American politics.


Assignment: Read the New York University Law Review study “The Declining Influence of the U.S. Constitution” at Journalist’s Resource. Write an 800-word blog post presenting the findings of the study and explaining what U.S. domestic dynamics may be at work in this apparent trend. Explore in particular the issue of Constitutional interpretation and intensifying political controversy in recent decades.

Week 11: Special interests and lobbying

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Class 1: Interest groups: Influence and coverage

Topics: Interest groups have an organized membership and pursue policy goals that stem from members’ shared interests. But the nation’s various interests are not equally well organized. We look at their influence and the challenges of covering their role in the democratic process.


Class 2: Lobbying and the money trail

Topic: Lobbying is the effort by groups to influence public policy through contact with public officials. We’ll look at both “inside” and “outside” lobbying — and the strategies employed, from public pressure to direct donations to politicians. Students should come to class familiar with the latest findings from the resource and watchdog websites listed below.


Resource/watchdog sites: Sunlight Foundation,,, United States Senate lobbying database.

Assignment: Choose a politician now holding national office and, using the sites and resources above, analyze the patterns of his or her support. Write an 800-word blog post about your findings.

Week 12: Navigating the partisan minefield; gender issues

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Class 1: Liberals, conservatives and reporters

Topic: We look at how to report fairly in an increasingly polarized and partisan political culture.


Class 2: Gender and politics

Topic: We look at women’s rise in politics and the continuing challenges for female political figures and women involved in public life.


In-class assignment: You will be shown a video of a short news event such as a stump speech or a Sunday TV appearance. In an email to the instructor, do mock tweets while you watch the event. Then post a 300-word blog at the bottom of the story. The purpose of the exercise is to give you an idea of what it feels like to produce deadline political copy.

Assignment: Read the American Journal of Political Science study “Barriers to Sustaining Gender Diversity in Politics.” Write an 800-word blog post on its findings and, based on further research, looking at the current configuration of Congress and the relative power of women within it.

Week 13: Freedom, fairness and ethics for the political reporter

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Class 1: Ethics and rules

Topic: We’ll discuss the ethics of political journalists, and the formal and informal rules of the game.


Class 2: Review and preview

Topic: What are the takeaways from this course? Where is this business headed, and what can students do now to prepare to meet it?


In-class assignment: For your final exam, you will be shown a news situation in class and asked to email a series of tweets to the instructor while the event is taking place, posting a four- or five-paragraph blog followed by a 400-word news story. All copy must be emailed to the instructor by the close of the final exam period.



A special thanks to David Yepsen, director of the Paul Simon Public Policy Institute at Southern Illinois University Carbondale, for help in writing this syllabus.

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