Columbia professor returns to Southern Illinois University for honorary degree

By Amina Sergazina, Staff Reporter

Ryan Brumback

Jackie Spinner received her bachelor’s degree in journalism from Southern Illinois University in 1992. Now after nearly 30 years, she was welcomed back to SIU to receive an honorary doctorate of media arts degree.

Spinner reported on wars in Iraq and Afghanistan during her 14 years as a journalist at The Washington Post, wrote a book about her time covering the war in Iraq titled “Tell Them I Didn’t Cry” and produced a documentary about Moroccan children with autism called “Don’t Forget Me” with a grant from the Pulitzer Center for Crisis Reporting.

In an email response to the Chronicle, Spinner said she was “surprised and deeply honored” when she learned about the honorary degree.

“I choked back tears walking into the stadium during the procession,” Spinner said. “I was thinking back to when I had marched in for commencement after earning my bachelor’s in journalism. I could not have imagined the wonderful career and opportunities that were waiting for me.”

“She is a real model for what the journalists of the next several decades would want to aspire to be,” said William Freivogel, a journalism professor at SIU and a publisher at the Gateway Journalism Review, where Spinner currently works as an editor. “[She is] devoted to the craft of deep, contextual, fair journalism that recognizes the importance of the social issues that the country faces in terms of systemic racism and history of sexism.”

Spinner said she is fortunate to have spent a large part of her journalism career at The Washington Post and to have learned from the “best in the industry” during her time there.

“My colleagues were exceptional and also kind and generous mentors,” Spinner said. “I grew up at The Washington Post and was given the grace to make a lot of mistakes in my early career that didn’t end it.”

Spinner said some of her favorite memories from her career at The Washington Post are covering the metro desk, running the Baghdad bureau, and covering the oyster festival in southern Maryland. She also reported on small communities in the San Francisco East Bay area for the Oakland Tribune.

Spinner started her teaching career as a student adviser in a college newspaper at the American University of Iraq, but she said her first “real” teaching job started at Columbia in 2011.

Suzanne McBride, professor and chair of the Communication Department, said she remembers meeting Spinner for the first time during lunch when Spinner interviewed for an assistant professor position.

“She really stands out as someone who cares very much about [students] and sees them as individuals,” McBride said. “[She is] also someone who is demanding and rigorous and wanting students to be able to go out into the world and work professionally right alongside other journalists.”

Spinner is a mom to three boys and is currently working on her second documentary, “Morocco, Morocco,” about a small town in Indiana called Morocco and ties to the kingdom of Morocco where Spinner’s three sons were born.

Spinner’s advice to aspiring journalists who want to become great journalists is to always maintain credibility.

“Credibility is the one thing we can’t get back if we lose,” Spinner said. “Great journalists guard their credibility, great journalists also listen. They stay off the stage, they keep their opinions to themselves.”