Professor gets invitation to train 'Serial' and 'This American Life' staff members

Fall 2016 Edition

Assistant Professor Jonathan Peters (right) met Ira Glass, host "This American Life" while he was in New York City earlier this year giving the show's staff a training session on media law.

Assistant Professor Jonathan Peters (right) met Ira Glass, host "This American Life" while he was in New York City earlier this year giving the show's staff a training session on media law.

Roughly a year ago, Assistant Professor Jonathan Peters was having a familiar writer’s problem: He was casting about for a topic for his thrice-monthly column for the Columbia Journalism Review.

His usually reliable well of topics had temporarily run dry: No pending court cases. No new administrative legislation. No one was suing anyone.

So he made the case to his editor to write a three-part primer series on media law principles.

“It's a little bit evergreen as a topic, but I think we can make it work,” Peters said.

His idea was to take topics from his 16-week First Amendment class and identify issues he thought would be pertinent for people in the industry to understand and re-familiarize themselves with.

Peters said his inkling of the idea came from the questions he receives via email. He said that almost all of the questions he receives fall into three categories.

“It’s ‘Can I use that?,’ ‘Can I do that?,’ ‘Can I say that?’” Peters said.

The series, titled with those questions, ran from October to November 2015. Peters said the columns were popular with CJR readers, and he began to receive a slew of emails from people asking questions about the series or to fill in gaps.

Those emails also turned into invitations for Peters, who also has a law degree, to give legal trainings to different organizations.

“I got an email sometime late last winter to early last spring from an executive producer at ‘This American Life,’” Peters said. “[They] said ‘Hey, just read one of the pieces in your primer series. We would be interested in hiring you to come to New York to give a training on media law to the staffs of ‘This American Life’ and ‘Serial.’”

The longtime listener of ‘This American Life’ and self-proclaimed fan boy of its host, Ira Glass, couldn’t refuse.

Before Peters stepped foot in New York City, he had to prepare. Combining 16 weeks worth of lectures into one day isn’t feasible, so he asked the staffs to come up with the issues that were most important for them to understand. Eight different ideas were tossed around before they were whittled down to freedom of information issues, privacy, libel, access to courts and subpoenas.

When the time came for Peters to go to New York for the briefing, he had trimmed his lecture to five hours. Through nondescript double doors and up into an Upper East Side high rise, Peters walked about 20 staffers, including Glass, through the predetermined areas of law and addressed their questions. Names of some other participants that people might recognize are: Zoe Chace, Emily Condon, Chana Joffe-Walt and Jonathan Menjivar.

“Selfishly, it was a lot of fun just to meet the reporters and producers of a lot of stories that connected well with me,” Peters said.

Peters taught, just like he does in his lectures, through PowerPoint presentations and active discussion. He said they stopped quite often along the way for tangential discussions about various issues.

Peters has conducted trainings for lots of organizations, most recently The Columbus Dispatch, the Society of Professional Journalists, the Society of American Business Editors and Writers, the Kansas City Press Club, and the International Association of Business Communicators.

He said he enjoys giving legal trainings to different organizations, as it helps him keep a fresh perspective. 

“It helps keep one of my feet planted firmly in the professional world, which I think benefits both my teaching and my research,” Peters said. “I'm still doing what I teach and what I write about. It also helps me develop or maintain professional world contacts that could be beneficial to the school, to students, or me down the line. That's one of the major things that I get out of that. To me, it is a very mutually reinforcing thing to be an actively engaged academic with teaching, writing and still doing some creative professional work on the side."

Read Jonathan Peters’ Columbia Journalism Review columns here.

– Amie Just is a senior from Funk, Nebraska, studying news and information.