Reporting on the Front Lines of History in Greece

Nov. 15, 2019

Julie Clack

In the journalism seminar “Reporting on the Front Lines of History in Greece,” undergraduates work with field reporting in and around refugee-related sites in Athens and the island of Lesbos. The five-week course is led by Joe Stephens, the Ferris Professor of Journalism in Residence and director of the Program in Journalism.

“Originally, we were drawn to Greece because it was very much in the headlines — first for its economic crisis, then for the huge wave of refugees who began arriving by boat. The following year, we considered moving the seminar to another news hotspot. But we soon realized that, although much of the international press corps had moved on, the people and their stories remained,” said Stephens. 

“Each year we have returned to witness a new chapter in the continuing story and have striven to fill the vacuum in news coverage. Our students have worked to tell stories that would otherwise go untold.”

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Combining classroom work with field reporting, the course places students on the front lines of the news in Greece, a unique opportunity designed to give them the hands-on experience required to learn and employ critical thinking skills and best practices used by the world’s most accomplished international correspondents.

“I took the journalism seminar because it seemed like a very fun way to gain more journalism experience,” said Marissa Michaels, a sophomore and prospective sociology major. “The seminar was an opportunity to actually practice journalism in an exciting setting outside of Princeton; most college courses don't give you the chance to really practice your craft outside of the classroom.”

For Stephens, a veteran investigative reporter for The Washington Post, the skills and hard work required to be an international journalist — and to tell a nonfiction story in all of its complexity — are best acquired by augmenting classroom time with intensive work in the field.

“It’s one thing to study journalism in a classroom in Princeton. It’s another to actually operate as an international correspondent in the field, and work on a tight schedule while wrestling with all the challenges and complexities of the real world,” said Stephens.

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“In the field, you have to manage, in real time, to make important choices regarding access, accuracy, verification, historical and cultural context, language differences, and on and on. You often have to do so while tired, hungry, stressed, confused. And what looks black-and-white back home often becomes very gray once seen up-close in the field.”

Thomas Salotti, a junior majoring in anthropology with certificates in journalism and entrepreneurship, experienced this personally: “I was not prepared for how powerful touring migrant camps and talking to migrants would be. It's one thing to read about it in the news, it's another to talk to these people firsthand and learn about their unbelievable experiences.”

While in Greece, students learned not just about issues in contemporary Greece, but also about the country’s storied past through excursions to cultural sites such as the Benaki Museum, the Parthenon and the Athens Agora. 

Salotti said that the highlight of his experience was “touring the Acropolis with the seminar, learning about the ancient and complex history that this one piece of land has had and how it has influenced the world as we know it today.”

For many students, their experience studying in Greece was a formative one. “The seminar has enlivened my passion for journalism and has started to get me thinking about the possibility of a journalistic thesis for my home department. I especially hope I can use the skills gained on the trip in my work at The Prospect, the arts and culture supplement of The Daily Princetonian, as well as looking forward to a potential career in journalism,” said Jack Allen, a junior concentrating in Slavic studies who is earning a certificate in journalism.

Michaels said, “I had never really thought about being a foreign correspondent before going on this seminar, but now I definitely see it as a possibility.”

The seminar is jointly sponsored by the Humanities Council and the Seeger Center for Hellenic Studies, with the support of The Paul Sarbanes ’54 Fund for Hellenism and Public Service, which expands the Center’s curriculum and research programs in new directions that relate to international relations, the social sciences and public policy.