Newhouse students travel to Ukraine for investigative journalism class

by Weng Cheong

February 19, 2019

Professor Cheryl Reed helps students dig through public documents to find stories

Cheryl Reed, assistant professor of magazine, news and digital journalism, believes strongly in the value of investigative journalism, especially now.

“I think as fake news and propaganda becomes more of a challenge in our field, students really need to be able to fact-check and verify information that they’re getting,” Reed says. To prepare journalism students for this responsibility, Reed taught an international investigative reporting course last semester where students looked at U.S. based charities that fundraise for Ukraine.

Why investigate charities? Reed says she chose the topic because there is so much available documentation, and she wanted a story subject where students would be able to report in both Ukraine and the U.S.

As part of the course, students had to pore through public documents and find sources, then write a 2,000 to 2,500-word story and produce two multimedia packages detailing what they found. One student found corruption in the charity he examined, and many others focused their stories on corruption in the Ukrainian health sector and Ukraine’s intercountry adoption laws.

At the end of the course, 13 students went on a two-week trip to Ukraine with Reed and Professor Suzanne Lysak over winter break.

Reed, who spent 10 months reporting and teaching investigative journalism in Ukraine through a Fulbright scholarship in 2016, says that in an effort to create more international reporting opportunities for Newhouse students, she proposed the idea of bringing the students to Ukraine as they finished their stories.

“This trip is incredibly unique in that students get to build their own sources, work with translators and essentially do all the reporting with very little help from me,” Reed says.

Reed says that being able to verify information by looking at public documents makes students more skilled as reporters. “Public documents, for the most part, don’t lie. It makes the story much more credible and richer because students can find details they can’t find anywhere else other than the documents,” she says.

From the start, the course demanded a lot from its participants: Students wishing to take it had to go through an application process, providing résumés, clips and reference letters.

“It’s basically a reporting internship overseas,” Reed says.

When the students landed in Kyiv, Ukraine, they immediately went to work on their stories, collaborating with graduate journalism students at Kyiv-Mohyla National University. Students also had the opportunity to learn how international outlets operate as they networked with people at the U.S. Embassy, Hromadske TV/Radio and the Fulbright office, as well as war correspondents from the Kyiv Post.

Broadcast and digital journalism [BDJ] senior Taylor Lang had never been on a plane before traveling to Ukraine with the class. She was unable to spend a semester abroad because she was committed to her position as executive producer at CitrusTV and saw the investigative journalism course as an opportunity to make up for what she missed.

“The Ukraine trip opened cultural doors for me,” she says. “I was nervous going into the trip because I’ve never done anything like this before, but it was a comfort knowing that I wasn’t alone and that my work was paying off.”

For Malika-Budur Kalila, a BDJ graduate student originally from Kazakhstan, the Ukraine trip allowed her to combine her bilingual and storytelling skills. She communicated with her sources in Russian, wrote her stories in English and even picked up a little Ukrainian by the end of the trip. 

Kalila says she finally experienced what real journalism is like while abroad.

“I learned that journalists are the ones who travel to countries that people won’t usually go [to],” she says. “Everyone wants to go to Paris or London, but journalists are the ones who need that courage to do [what’s] least expected.” 

The students who traveled to Ukraine had until Feb. 8 to complete their stories. They are responsible for pitching and securing publication by late March, and publication is worth five percent of their grade.

“I think it’s a rewarding experience, and I wasn’t holding anybody’s hand,” Reed says. “I feel that the students will come away with packages that really showcase the multitude of skills they learned from this class.”

Weng Cheong is magazine, newspaper and online journalism graduate student at the Newhouse School.