Every year, a journalism class at a Vienna-based university unearths attention-grabbing stories. 

The idea of a practical journalism course dawned on Marius Dragomir while he was chatting with a student of Public Policy at the Central European University (CEU), a private school in Vienna endowed by businessman George Soros.

CEU does not have a journalism or media department; however, communications-related courses are offered across various faculties. Despite not preparing future journalists, media remains a key topic. “He [the student] was telling me that he would like to know how journalism works, just the basics,” Dragomir said. “Why does nobody teach such a course here?” the student asked.

Dragomir learned from talking to more students that working in public policy requires a solid understanding of the media field. “I would say that understanding how journalists operate is important for any field of activity, not only public policy,” he added.

With that in mind, Dragomir launched “Journalistic Research and Investigation: A Practical Course” in the academic year ending in 2021. A total of nine students signed up in the first year. The following year, that number more than doubled with 21 students registering for it. The course is taught during the winter term between January and April.

“I think the practical aspect attracted the students the most,” said Dragomir who has been teaching at CEU for seven years. “They get to work as journalists, collecting data, conducting interviews, and meeting with sources. It is much better than me sitting in front of them and describing what journalistic work entails.”

Yijing Chen, a Chinese student in the 2023 cohort, said that she was partly inspired by the HBO series The Newsroom to attend the class. “But what the class delivered is certainly more rewarding than watching and theorizing about journalistic practices from the sidelines,” she said.

Four Months in the Newsroom

The course was designed to function as a newsroom. In each class, which takes place once a week, under Dragomir’s guidance, students discuss the most recent information they have obtained and plan for the next steps, assigning themselves tasks for the following week. As part of the class, basic journalistic techniques and methods are introduced and discussed, covering a range of topics from interviewing strategies to protecting sources’ identities to searching for data.

After more than three months of reporting, the class pitches the story to an independent media outlet. In the first year, the story, which investigated how the Covid-19 pandemic impacted the situation of migrants in EU detention centers, was published by Politico Europe.

“It was thrilling not only for students but also for me to see our work featured in such a major news outlet,” Dragomir said. “Many of them, the students, told me how proud they were of this achievement.”

In 2023, Politico Europe published the second article developed in Dragomir’s class, an investigation into the sensitive issue of abortion rights across Europe. The group of students conducted interviews with activists, doctors, experts, NGOs, and politicians to investigate whether a ban on abortion is likely to be imposed in Europe.

The experience is unique for Dragomir, especially when it comes to the impact of the class on students. “These are MA-level or even doctoral students who are incredibly knowledgeable about the most pressing issues in today’s world; and yet, they discover something new: how strenuous the journalistic work actually is. Some of them have not thought about it before.”

“What struck me the most was how demanding and rigorous the process of writing an article really is, how many hours of research and interviews it takes to collect irrefutable evidence and put it all together in a form that is accessible for the readers,” said Kristina Kovalska, a student from Slovakia who was part of the 2023 cohort. 

As Tough as It Gets

Besides the impact on students, the CEU class also sheds light on the importance of independent journalism. Although the time was too short to engage in debates about the functioning of media and the pressures journalists regularly face, such issues were occasionally touched upon in the class.

“Very often, they experienced that as part of the class as well,” Dragomir said. During the investigation of the detention centers, for example, authorities such as the police in several European countries were rather brutal in rejecting requests for interviews. At the same time, a number of high officials and celebrities accepted talking to students, much to their amazement.

“We discovered various aspects of the web of pro-life organizations scattered across Europe, from potential dark money trails to the taxation of abortion in Austria,” said Leila Lawrence who was part of this year’s class. “After speaking to prominent pro-life figures as well as key researchers, journalists and doctors, it became clear that we were missing the perspective of a woman who had gone through the process of getting an abortion. Once we gained this perspective, the piece really came together.”

“It’s all part of the experience; journalism is tough, and I think the students learned that firsthand,” according to Dragomir, who began his journalism career more than three decades ago at the age of 16.  From collecting sufficient information to finding the right angle for the investigation, the work in the class is a rather difficult journey, he explains. “My appreciation for the work of journalists was definitely multiplied by this experience,” Kovalska said.

For example, in the 2023 class, nearly 30 interviews were carried out as part of the reporting. A year prior, the investigation conducted in the class, which aimed to map the world’s key perpetrators of SLAPPs, a form of litigation initiated by wealthy and influential individuals to intimidate journalists and discourage them from pursuing investigations into sensitive topics, did not result in a story due to various pressures from multiple law firms. “We still possess the database [of perpetrators], and I am still intending to delve into that topic, but we lacked enough information to confront all those nasty individuals in the event they chose to attack me,” Dragomir said. But even that experience contributed to the learning process.

Dragomir, who is now preparing several topics for the upcoming class, which will commence in January 2024, hopes to uncover more stories with his students in the years to come. However, more importantly, he hopes that this model will encourage other schools to create similar courses. “It is essential to involve young people in journalism, even if they will not pursue it as a profession, as this will shape how future generations perceive and value the work of journalists,” he added.

Photo: CEU courtesy