My “Syllabus”

Over the years, I’ve come across excellent evergreen articles, books, academic papers, radio shows, podcasts, research and other resources that are eye-opening and invaluable for various reasons. These are all keepers. 

They cover a broad range of topics and I refer to them in conversations — and then I can’t actually find them again. So I made this rolling list, my “syllabus”, for future reference for myself and others. – Amy, August 2020

For literary influences and general reading, I wrote this post for literary magazine Massachusetts Review in 2020.

Subjects so far,  listed under orange subheads:

  1. Media, Journalism, Freelance Journalism
  2. Essays
  3. Misinformation, Disinformation, Propaganda
  4. Education
  5. Understanding the U.S.
  6. Climate Change, Environment, Energy
  7. Radio, Audio Docs and Podcasts

Media, Journalism, Freelance Jouralism


Freelancers have a name for endless rounds of edits: scope creep

Columbia Journalism Review, April 2019

By Julissa Treviño

EARLIER THIS YEAR, I FACED a situation that’s increasingly common among freelance journalists. I had filed a story of about 1,700 words. And then I received a slew of questions, requests, and queries from my editor. By the time I had answered them all, across eight rounds of edits, it was close to 2,500 words.

Of course, going back and forth with an editor on a story is a vital part of what we do. But as budgets have gotten tighter, and the calculations we have to make as freelancers more complex, I and many other reporters have adopted a term for projects that demand more — more words, more reporting, more interviews, picture research, and even sidebars — without any mention of additional pay: scope creep…”

“…As Yan put it: “Editors should always come back with a way to increase the rate. If you can’t do that rate increase, then change your standards.”

View at

“Journalism Has a Class Problem”

July 2017 

By Heather Bryant

[Essay by an Alaska public radio reporter and Knight Stanford Journalism Fellow. It opens with telling someone at a conference that her husband works as a truck driver, mechanic and was driving for a trash company. I had never read anything like this and it highlights class — a neglected topic, in my opinion. – Amy]

“Neither my husband nor myself are from a middle class family. You could characterize my husband’s as the working class assortment of blue-collar farmers, factory workers and so on that are common in the rural spaces of the Midwest a few hours away from the bigger cities. Mine could see working class from where we were if we squinted hard enough. I was raised by my grandmother who took care of three kids while getting by on $700 a month of social security supplemented by food stamps and Medicaid. The ends never met and I grew up well versed in the facial expressions of those who looked down on us.

The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election

So why won’t the media admit as much?

By Nate Silver,, May 2017

The Comey Letter Probably Cost Clinton The Election

“The impact of Comey’s letter is comparatively easy to quantify, by contrast. At a maximum, it might have shifted the race by 3 or 4 percentage points toward Donald Trump, swinging Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida to him, perhaps along with North Carolina and Arizona. At a minimum, its impact might have been only a percentage point or so. Still, because Clinton lost Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 point, the letter was probably enough to change the outcome of the Electoral College…

The motivation for this seems fairly clear: If Comey’s letter altered the outcome of the election, the media may have some responsibility for the result. The story dominated news coverage for the better part of a week, drowning out other headlines, whether they were negative for Clinton (such as the news about impending Obamacare premium hikes) or problematic for Trump (such as his alleged ties to Russia). And yet, the story didn’t have a punchline: Two days before the election, Comey disclosed that the emails hadn’t turned up anything new.”

News Coverage of the 2016 General Election: How the Press Failed the Voters 

Shorenstein Center, Harvard Kennedy School, December 2016

[One of four academic reports based on quantitative data by Thomas Patterson, professor at Harvard Kennedy School.  – Amy]

“Criticism dogged Hillary Clinton at every step of the general election. Her “bad press” outpaced her “good press” by 64 percent to 36 percent. She was criticized for everything from her speaking style to her use of emails.

As Clinton was being attacked in the press, Donald Trump was attacking the press, claiming that it was trying to “rig” the election in her favor. If that’s true, journalists had a peculiar way of going about it. Trump’s coverage during the general election was more negative than Clinton’s, running 77 percent negative to 23 percent positive. But over the full course of the election, it was Clinton, not Trump, who was more often the target of negative coverage (see Figure 1). Overall, the coverage of her candidacy was 62 percent negative to 38 percent positive, while his coverage was 56 percent negative to 44 percent positive.”

Out on a Ledge

The Moth by Phil Caputo

A hardened reporter discovers the other side of the battlefield.

[I heard this 17-minute piece in January 2020. I was floored by how Phil responded (~8 minutes) to his Chicago Tribune editors when they asked him to get a story in wartorn Lebanon — though not completely surprised. That’s why I’m filing this under “Media” instead of the “Audio” category down below. He also learned about humility and compassion for his ‘subjects’– the hard way.

I appreciated how Phil told a story braiding formative events and melded humor and pathos instead of following a more formulaic structure. – Amy]

Press Coverage and Political Accountability

[NBER paper that shows a link between journalism and civic engagement – or lack of when there is less press coverage. -Amy]

James M. Snyder, Jr.David Strömberg

National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper No. 13878
March 2008

“In this paper we estimate the impact of press coverage on citizen knowledge, politicians’ actions, and policy. We find that a poor fit between newspaper markets and political districts reduces press coverage of politics. We use variation in this fit due to redistricting to identify the effects of reduced coverage. Exploring the links in the causal chain of media effects — voter information, politicians’ actions and policy — we find statistically significant and substantively important effects. Voters living in areas with less coverage of their U.S. House representative are less likely to recall their representative’s name, and less able to describe and rate them. Congressmen who are less covered by the local press work less for their constituencies: they are less likely to stand witness before congressional hearings, to serve on constituency-oriented committees (perhaps), and to vote against the party line. Finally, this congressional behavior affects policy. Federal spending is lower in areas where there is less press coverage of the local members of congress.”

Financing Dies in Darkness? The Impact of Newspaper Closures on Public Finance

[More academic research on the impact of newspaper closures on civic life and government. – Amy]

“We examine how local newspaper closures affect public finance outcomes for local governments. Following a newspaper closure, municipal borrowing costs increase by 5 to 11 basis points, costing the municipality an additional $650 thousand per issue. This effect is causal and not driven by underlying economic conditions. The loss of government monitoring resulting from a closure is associated with higher government wages and deficits, and increased likelihoods of costly advance refundings and negotiated sales. Overall, our results indicate that local newspapers hold their governments accountable, keeping municipal borrowing costs low and ultimately saving local taxpayers money.”

View at

Excerpt from book Why Democracies Need an Unloveable Press

by Michael Schudson, professor at Columbia Journalism School

Chapter Two: “Six or Seven Things News Can Do for Democracy”, 

“Democracy does not necessary produce journalism nor does journalism necessarily produce democracy.”


The Love Of My Life

The Sun, BY CHERYL STRAYED, September 2002

[The Sun is my favorite literary magazine. I was leafing through it and came across this essay. I was blown away by the writing and its insights. It was an excerpt of Wild by a writer I had never heard of. I was not at all surprised when it became a monster bestseller, and for very good reason. – Amy] 

“The first time I cheated on my husband, my mother had been dead for exactly one week. I was in a cafe in Minneapolis watching a man. He watched me back. He was slightly pudgy, with jet-black hair and skin so white it looked as if he’d powdered it. He stood and walked to my table and sat down without asking. He wanted to know if I had a cat. I folded my hands on the table, steadying myself; I was shaking, nervous at what I would do. I was raw, fragile, vicious with grief. I would do anything.

“Yes,” I said.

“I thought so,” he said slowly. He didn’t take his eyes off me. I rolled the rings around on my fingers. I was wearing two wedding bands, my own and my mother’s. I’d taken hers off her hand after she died. It was nothing fancy: sterling silver, thick and braided.

“You look like the kind of girl who has a cat.”

“How’s that?” I asked.

He didn’t answer. He just kept looking at me steadily, as if he knew everything about me, as if he owned me. I felt distinctly that he might be a murderer.

“Are you mature?” he asked intently.

I didn’t know what he meant. I still don’t. I told him that I was.

“Well then prove it and walk down the street with me.”

We left the cafe, his hand on my arm…”

“How To Write About Africa” 

Satiric essay by Kenyan author Binyavanga Wainaina, 2005

[Gives an idea of why it’s even harder to convince editors at western media to publish articles from Africa, especially because many of them have never been there, even thought they edit international articles. – Amy]

“…Never have a picture of a well-adjusted African on the cover of your book, or in it, unless that African has won the Nobel Prize. An AK-47, prominent ribs, naked breasts: use these. If you must include an African, make sure you get one in Masai or Zulu or Dogon dress….

“Bad Western characters may include children of Tory cabinet ministers, Afrikaners, employees of the World Bank. When talking about exploitation by foreigners mention the Chinese and Indian traders. Blame the West for Africa’s situation. But do not be too specific.
“Broad brushstrokes throughout are good. Avoid having the African characters laugh, or struggle to educate their kids, or just make do in mundane circumstances. Have them illuminate something about Europe or America in Africa. African characters should be colourful, exotic, larger than life — but empty inside, with no dialogue, no conflicts or resolutions in their stories, no depth or quirks to confuse the cause.
“Describe, in detail, naked breasts (young, old, conservative, recently raped, big, small) or mutilated genitals, or enhanced genitals. Or any kind of genitals. And dead bodies. Or, better, naked dead bodies. And especially rotting naked dead bodies. Remember, any work you submit in which people look filthy and miserable will be referred to as the ‘real Africa,’ and you want that on your dust jacket. Do not feel queasy about this: you are trying to help them to get aid from the West. The biggest taboo in writing about Africa is to describe or show dead or suffering white people.”

Misinformation, Disinformation, Propaganda

The New Yorker[4] published a cartoon by artist Peter Steiner on July 5th, 1993, which featured an illustration of a dog seated at a computer telling his canine companion that “on the Internet, nobody knows you’re a dog” (shown below). Years later on December 14th, 2000, The New York Times[5] published an interview with Steiner in an article titled “Cartoon Captures Spirit of the Internet,” noting that the cartoon did not receive much attention initially, but steadily grew in popularity over many years.

On the Internet, nobody knous you're a dog cartoon mammal black and white dog like mammal furniture text dog human behavior sitting technology


[I know the US has brazenly (ad illegally) interfered in the affairs of other countries, but this article spelled it out. The quote from former CIA officer Steven Hall was shockingly honest. – Amy]

“Bags of cash delivered to a Rome hotel for favored Italian candidates. Scandalous stories leaked to foreign newspapers to swing an election in Nicaragua. Millions of pamphlets, posters and stickers printed to defeat an incumbent in Serbia.

The long arm of Vladimir Putin? No, just a small sample of the United States’ history of intervention in foreign elections….

Most Americans are understandably shocked by what they view as an unprecedented attack on our political system. But intelligence veterans, and scholars who have studied covert operations, have a different, and quite revealing, view.

“If you ask an intelligence officer, did the Russians break the rules or do something bizarre, the answer is no, not at all,” said Steven L. Hall, who retired in 2015 after 30 years at the C.I.A., where he was the chief of Russian operations. The United States “absolutely” has carried out such election influence operations historically, he said, “and I hope we keep doing it.”

Loch K. Johnson, the dean of American intelligence scholars, who began his career in the 1970s investigating the C.I.A. as a staff member of the Senate’s Church Committee, says Russia’s 2016 operation was simply the cyber-age version of standard United States practice for decades, whenever American officials were worried about a foreign vote…”

How Russia Helped Swing the Election for Trump

A meticulous analysis of online activity during the 2016 campaign makes a powerful case that targeted cyberattacks by hackers and trolls were decisive.

By Jane Mayer, The New Yorker, September 2018

[Eye-opening analysis by Prof. Kathleen Jamieson of UPenn who has been studying US elections for 40 years. -Amy]

“…Cyberwar: How Russian Hackers and Trolls Helped Elect a President—What We Don’t, Can’t, and Do Know,” by Kathleen Hall Jamieson, a professor of communications at the University of Pennsylvania, dares to ask—and even attempts to answer—whether Russian meddling had a decisive impact in 2016. Jamieson offers a forensic analysis of the available evidence and concludes that Russia very likely delivered Trump’s victory.”

How Teens In The Balkans Are Duping Trump Supporters With Fake News

[In 2016 I noticed a friend sharing bizarre, ridiculous articles on FB. I knew they were dodgy, but did not understand what they were. After the US elections, I read this article and was blown away by this cottage industry of fictionalized news in Macedonia. This article is a classic. Note that it came out days before US elections.  — Amy]

BuzzFeed News identified more than 100 pro-Trump websites being run from a single town in the former Yugoslav Republic of Macedonia.

Buzzfeed, By Craig Silverman and Lawrence Alexander, November 3, 2016

“Over the past year the Macedonian town of Veles (population 45,000) has experienced a digital gold rush as locals launched at least 140 US politics websites…

“The young Macedonians who run these sites say they don’t care about Donald Trump. They are responding to straightforward economic incentives: As Facebook regularly reveals in earnings reports, a US Facebook user is worth about four times a user outside the US. The fraction-of-a-penny-per-click of US display advertising — a declining market for American publishers — goes a long way in Veles. Several teens and young men who run these sites told BuzzFeed News that they learned the best way to generate traffic is to get their politics stories to spread on Facebook — and the best way to generate shares on Facebook is to publish sensationalist and often false content that caters to Trump supporters.”


Who Gets to Graduate?

New York Times Magazine, May 2014

[Eye-opening article about extra support for first-gen and/or low-income college students with good results in Texas. – Amy]

“Rich kids graduate; poor and working-class kids don’t. Or to put it more statistically: About a quarter of college freshmen born into the bottom half of the income distribution will manage to collect a bachelor’s degree by age 24, while almost 90 percent of freshmen born into families in the top income quartile will go on to finish their degree…”

“If those students come from families in the top-income quartile, they have a 2 in 3 chance of graduating with a four-year degree. If they come from families in the bottom quartile, they have just a 1 in 6 chance of making it to graduation…

“An internal U.T. report published in 2012 showed that only 39 percent of first-generation students (meaning students whose parents weren’t college graduates) graduated in four years, compared with 60 percent whose parents both graduated from college.

“…It is an extension of the basic psychological strategy that he has used ever since that first TIP program: Select the students who are least likely to do well, but in all your communications with them, convey the idea that you have selected them for this special program not because you fear they will fail, but because you are confident they can succeed.”

Climate Change, Environment, Energy

It’s not just Greta Thunberg: why are we ignoring the developing world’s inspiring activists?

[Excellent OpEd by Chika Unigwe with the sub-headline that sums it up well: “Young people in the global south have been tackling the climate crisis for years. They should be celebrated too” – Amy]

“…For years, young people across the world have been campaigning to draw attention to the crisis our planet faces, and to tackle it. Yet it seems the media is only interested in one young climate activist.

Without doubt, the remarkable Greta Thunberg is a superstar. In just one year, she has gone from being an unknown teenager, living in the comfort of a middle-class home in Sweden, to being one of the most recognised faces on the planet. She is fearless, earnest, passionate about the planet and determined.

But so are her peers. Born in a wealthy country, to parents who can afford to accommodate their daughter’s convictions, and in a culture where children are encouraged to speak up, Thunberg has intersecting privileges. She is aware of this and regularly mentions her fellow youth activists in her speeches, to remind journalists that there are others working alongside her.

People such as the teenager Aditya Mukarji, who in March 2018 began a war against plastic straws. Within just five months, he had already helped replace more than 500,000 plastic straws at restaurants and hotels in New Delhi. “People listen more to children bringing up environmental concerns,” he says…”

Midway: Message from the Gyre

Photos by Chris Jordan×24

[I remember first seeing these photos by Chris Jordan in 2011. I was shocked by the devastating sight of bird skeletons full of the plastic that had killed them. – Amy]

‘It’s unbelievable what these birds can fit in their gullets’ ...

Chris Jordan: “On Midway Atoll, a remote cluster of islands more than 2000 miles from the nearest continent, the detritus of our mass consumption surfaces in an astonishing place: inside the stomachs of thousands of dead baby albatrosses. The nesting chicks are fed lethal quantities of plastic by their parents, who mistake the floating trash for food as they forage over the vast polluted Pacific Ocean.

For me, kneeling over their carcasses is like looking into a macabre mirror. These birds reflect back an appallingly emblematic result of the collective trance of our consumerism and runaway industrial growth. Like the albatross, we first-world humans find ourselves lacking the ability to discern anymore what is nourishing from what is toxic to our lives and our spirits. Choked to death on our waste, the mythical albatross calls upon us to recognize that our greatest challenge lies not out there, but in here.

The Secret to Solar Power

New York Times Magazine, August 2012

[This concept in this article is so powerful. What a ‘light bulb’ moment to realize what fossil fuels really are. -Amy]

“Enough sunlight falls on the earth’s surface every hour to meet the entire world’s energy needs for one year…

“When we burn coal, gas or oil, we are simply harnessing an archived version of that same energy from the sun, stored in plant and animal life, compacted and preserved under the earth’s crust. As [Danny Kennedy, founder of Sungevity] puts it in his passionate but rational way: “Think about it this way. We’re killing people in foreign lands in order to extract 200-million-year-old sunlight. Then we burn it . . . in order to boil water to create steam to drive a turbine to generate electricity. We frack our own backyards and pollute our rivers, or we blow up our mountaintops just miles from our nation’s capital for an hour of electricity, when we could just take what’s falling free from the sky.””

State of the Union (Understanding the U.S.)

I’m a Coastal Elite From the Midwest: The Real Bubble is Rural America, November 2016

By Patrick Thornton

[I read this very compelling essay about rural America in 2016 and referenced it many times in conversations. This line: “More Americans need to see more of the United States.” – Amy]

“I’m from the rural Midwest. I now live in Washington, D.C. All of this talk about coastal elites needing to understand more of America has it backward.

My home county in Ohio is 97 percent white. It, like a lot of other very unrepresentative counties, went heavily for Donald Trump…

The first gay person I knew personally was my college roommate — a great man who made me a better person. But that’s an experience I would have never had if I didn’t go to college and instead decided to live the rest of my life in my hometown…

That was when I realized that not supporting gay marriage meant to actively deny rights to someone I knew personally. I wouldn’t be denying marriage rights to other people; I would be denying marriage rights to Dave. I would have to look Dave in the eye and say, “Dave, you deserve fewer rights than me. You deserve a lesser human experience.”

When you grow up in rural America, denying rights to people is an abstract concept. Denying marriage rights to gay people isn’t that much different than denying boarding rights to Klingons….

I have some extended family in rural New Jersey. Some of them had never been to D.C. before visiting me. They had never made the short drive to see the Constitution in person. They had not seen the Apollo moon lander, nor George Washington’s Revolutionary War uniform.

And they certainly have not seen the new National Museum of African American History and Culture. They’ve never seen the extent of American greatness or its messiness.

To pin this election on the coastal elite is a cop-out. It’s intellectually dishonest, and it’s beneath us.

We, as a culture, have to stop infantilizing and deifying rural and white working-class Americans. Their experience is not more of a real American experience than anyone else’s, but when we say that it is, we give people a pass from seeing and understanding more of their country. More Americans need to see more of the United States. They need to shake hands with a Muslim, or talk soccer with a middle aged lesbian, or attend a lecture by a female business executive.”

Radio, Audio Docs and Podcasts


This American Life, August  2002

[I have told so many people about this stellar episode of TAL. Part 3 is especially memorable. Wow. – Amy]

“Stories of people getting more testosterone and coming to regret it. And of people losing it and coming to appreciate life without it. The pros and cons of the hormone of desire. 

Part 3: An interview with a transgender man, who started life as female and began taking testosterone injections several years ago. He explains how testosterone changed his views on nature vs. nurture for good.”

Made to be Broken

The Moth by Dan Choi September 2009

[This was such a moving, surprising story. No spoilers but it’s well worth 11 minutes of your time.]

“An Iraq veteran is surprised to find himself suddenly at odds with a military law.”


Income Inequality in the U.S. Is Rising Most Rapidly Among Asians
Asians displace blacks as the most economically divided group in the U.S. 

July 2018, Pew Research

“income inequality in the U.S. is greatest among Asians. From 1970 to 2016, the gap in the standard of living between Asians near the top and the bottom of the income ladder nearly doubled, and the distribution of income among Asians transformed from being one of the most equal to being the most unequal among America’s major racial and ethnic groups…

“In this process, Asians displaced blacks as the most economically divided racial or ethnic group in the U.S. While Asians overall rank as the highest earning racial and ethnic group in the U.S., it is not a status shared by all Asians: From 1970 to 2016, the gains in income for lower-income Asians trailed well behind the gains for their counterparts in other groups.”