Princeton People: Washington Post Reporter Teaches Aspiring Young Journalists

Journalist Joe Stephens
Journalist Joe Stephens

Princeton University does not have a journalism major, but the school offers reporting seminars that attract internationally known journalists. The classes fill up quickly, and waiting lists are the norm.

Three or four visiting professors teach journalism seminars each semester, and the program attracts reporters and editors from the New Yorker, the New York Times, NPR, Vanity Fair, and other national publications. Two journalism teachers are long-term professors in residence: Writer John McPhee and investigative reporter Joe Stephens.

An award-winning reporter at the Washington Post, Stephens teaches a seminar on investigative journalism and another exploring the the challenges and opportunities of the rapidly evolving media landscape called “The Media in America – What to Read and Believe in the Digital Age.”

“Teaching these courses is just an amazing amount of fun,” Stephens said.

The Ohio native discovered his love for journalism at a young age. He used to watch his father, a factory worker without much formal
education, read The Cincinnati Post and Times-Star.

“My father would read everything religiously – he would read the front page, all the stories inside, all the briefs, he would even read the classified ads,” Stephens said. “And that really was his form of formal education. He learned about the world through
that newspaper. So I got the bug because I thought it was a really great romantic idea — the newspaper as the university for the common man.”

Stephens earned his bachelor’s degree in English from Miami University in 1981. His first job out of college was editor in chief of the Clermont County Sun in Ohio. In 1987, after several years as a police reporter for The State Journal Register, he became an investigative projects reporter for The Kansas City Star.

In 1999, he landed his dream job as a member the investigative reporting team of the Washington Post. One of his best-known investigative projects was a 2000 series he wrote with colleagues called “The Body Hunters” about the problematic testing practices of U.S. pharmaceutical companies operating in Nigeria and other developing countries.

“There were a lot of serious problems with the experiments – problems with informed consent, problems with giving unproven drugs to children who were critically ill,” Stephens said. “So the story had a huge impact and got a lot of attention, and is still
talked about today. It somehow stuck in the public consciousness in ways that some other stories just haven’t.”

He also co-wrote a series about The Nature Conservancy’s business dealings in 2003 that uncovered some questionable financial practices. The reporting led to a congressional investigation and an Internal Revenue Service audit. In 2011, Stephens and a Washington Post colleague wrote a series about how the Obama administration pressed to approve a $535 million federal loan to Solyndra, a solar panel manufacturer whose leading investors were tied to a major Obama fundraiser.

Stephens has won three George Polk Awards for his investigative work, and has co-written three series that were Pulitzer Prize finalists.

He decided to become a professor after three decades as an investigative reporter in order to give more back to his field and help shape the next generation of journalists.

“I expected the gig to exercise new muscles in my brain, to be fun and fulfilling, but I had no idea just how astoundingly fun and fulfilling it would actually be,” he said. “The students blew me away, as did the supportive faculty and staff at Princeton, and the
collective brainpower on campus.”

In 2012, Stephens was a visiting Ferris journalism professor at Princeton, and he returned in the fall of 2014 for a five-year appointment as a Ferris Professor in Residence. The program is part of the Princeton University Council of the Humanities.

This summer, Stephens will take six students to Greece to report on the Syrian refugee crisis as part of a new Council of the Humanities program. Kathleen Crown, executive director of the Humanities Council, has been the driving force and visionary leader behind this new course, and Dimitri Gondicas, director of Princeton’s Center for Hellenic Studies, has been instrumental is planning the program.

Pioneering the first-ever international journalism seminar at the school, Stephens said he hopes the course will be a pilot program for other student international journalism programs in the future.

“Students will not just learn about being a foreign correspondent, but will actually become foreign correspondents,” he said. “They’re
going to learn to find their way through a very confusing process in a developing situation, and find a story in there. They’re going to learn a lot about Greek culture, about Syrian culture, and most importantly, they’re going to really be eyewitnesses to history
during a pivotal time in Greece.”

Students in the program will spend their first three weeks in Athens learning about Greek history and contemporary politics, and their last two weeks doing actual reporting on the island of Lesbos. The island has a population of about 90,000, yet saw almost 450,000 refugees pass through during 2015.

The seminar will encourage the use of multimedia journalism by having students integrate videos and photo stories with traditional written articles.

“We want it to be very digital,” Stephens said. “Writing is important and at the heart of the seminar, but so are all of the other aspects, and we hope to build all of that right into the course.”

Although there is currently a lot of disruption in the field of journalism, Stephens said the potential for new ways to tell a story is virtually limitless, and he’s incredibly excited to see where his work will take him next.

“Being a journalist lets you see society in a way that no one else has the opportunity to see,” he said. “If you’re a policeman, you talk to policemen, if you’re a senator, you talk to other members of Congress, if you’re a bus driver, you talk to other bus drivers. But journalists get to see everyone’s work, the big picture, and put it all
together – and I think that’s just amazingly cool.”