Dr. Jelani Cobb and his mission to reshape journalism

Columbia Journalism School's new dean aims to 'democratize' journalism, starting with the classroom

Columbia Journalism School Dean Dr. Jelani Cobb met students during orientation in August. Cobb, who has taught at the school for six years, was named the new dean Aug. 1. (Photo by Calla Kessler)
Columbia Journalism School Dean Dr. Jelani Cobb met students during orientation in August. Cobb, who has taught at the school for six years, was named the new dean Aug. 1. (Photo by Calla Kessler)

If Dr. Jelani Cobb could gather all of you into his Columbia University lecture hall, he would speak on journalism’s role in democracy during political turbulence and how journalism came to function in tandem with democracy.

“I think that’s a question that has renewed salience,” he said.

Cobb was appointed the dean of Columbia Journalism School on Aug. 1, following six years as a professor at the university. Cobb is also a full-time staff writer for The New Yorker. He was a Pulitzer Prize finalist in commentary in 2018 for 10 pieces published in The New Yorker in 2017 that combined “masterful writing with a deep knowledge of history and a deft reporter’s touch to bring context and clarity to the issue of race at a time when respectful dialogue on the subject often gives way to finger-pointing and derision.”

After spending his career sparking dialogue by writing on the issues of race, equity and politics, he now has an opportunity to shape the field of journalism.

A key element of his vision is “democratization,” a word he prefers over “diversification.” Democratizing the field starts with the classroom, he said, including who is on staff, who is invited to speak and who they are reaching.

“The institution obviously has a tremendous history and an outstanding reputation. We’re not interested in resting on our laurels in any way,” he said. “When I was thinking about this job, I was thinking about what kind of challenges were on the horizon and what I can continue to do in meeting them. There are lots of areas confronting journalists. Most visibly is probably cost.”

Cobb’s undergraduate degree took seven years to earn because of tuition costs. He said he understands the prestigious university comes with a daunting price tag for students seeking a degree in a contracting market. Columbia’s nine-and-a-half-month graduate program can cost students without financial aid $121,290, including estimated living expenses. That can equate to about four years of salary for a journalist with a master’s degree.

“My vision is to come up with strategies that mitigate the cost for emerging journalists,” he said.

Along with finding ways to ease the financial burden, there is a deeper question he wants to answer.

“The more philosophical challenge is about what journalism is supposed to do in a climate in which we see decreasing trust in media and, paradoxically, increased trust in social media platforms where disinformation has flourished,” he said.

Cobb wants to train journalists to operate in the context of “a disinformation system.” He believes how journalists can renew the public’s trust is a question that requires a collaborative answer. But he thinks that teaching the public how the job is done could be a start.

Cobb would like to see online articles with hyperlinks explaining how a story developed. For example, it started with a news tip that led to a Freedom of Information Act request, which yielded databases of information from a government agency and interviews with several sources.

“It will allow people to know how that information they’re consuming came to be in front of them,” he said. “Even restaurants have to be transparent about that now. ‘Locally sourced! This is how we got the food in front of you.’ Journalists have to do the same.”

Cobb is also the author of “The Substance of Hope: Barack Obama and the Paradox of Progress” and teaches a class called “Covering Race.” He said he would emphasize context if he had to boil a semester of lessons down to one key point. Most journalistic pieces covering race are reactive, he said, such as reporting on the murder of George Floyd or the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes in the COVID-19 pandemic.

“I think we have tended to look at race as a battleground,” he said. He reminds his students that full enfranchisement barely existed outside of his lifetime. In some states, only about half the population could vote less than 60 years ago.

“We have to understand, not just simply what is happening right in front of us in terms of race, but we also have to understand how race as a dynamic has affected the coding in this country,” he said.

The lesson of historical context extends to all areas of journalism, he said. Cobb earned his Ph.D. from Rutgers University in American history. He holds that the so-called “first draft of history” writers should be well versed in the preceding texts.

“In order to be able to present information in the most thorough way possible, we have to give context for what is happening right now,” he said.

“I would like to see our graduates walking out the door with 50 years of contextual knowledge on the beats they cover,” he added, like U.S. foreign policy, economics and criminal justice.

He recalled “…the moment it became very clear we had to do something differently.” He said he was watching coverage of the January 6th, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol when an anchor boldly announced, “We’ve entered the most turbulent stretch of politics in American history.”

“I just thought, ‘No, actually, not really,’” he said with a laugh. “It’s important to think about how we got to where we are.”

Cobb’s own history began in Queens, New York. His father was an electrician with a third-grade education. Cobb’s earliest memories of writing involved his father teaching him the alphabet.

Before Rutgers and The New Yorker, he attended Howard University and worked as a columnist for Africana.

Alyssa Choiniere is an Editor & Publisher contributor and a freelance journalist based in southwestern Pennsylvania. She previously worked as a local newspaper reporter for 10 years. She can be reached at alyssa.choiniere@gmail.com.


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