Northwestern University v. the Meaning of Journalism

So, the whole shield law debate is re-donning the executioner’s mask and emerging to torture student journalists again.


You can almost hear a collective sigh of annoyance seeping out of student journalists nationwide on this one.

It’s amazing to me that issues like this haven’t been sorted out in our favor yet. I mean, every now and then I guess you have the rare Hazelwood case, but the latest clash between the Cook County prosecutors and the Northwestern University School of Journalism really kind of makes me want to throw my computer into heavy traffic.

As the New York Times reported on Sunday, the Medill Innocence Project of Northwestern University, through which journalism students have been reexamining the outcomes and proceedings of questionable court cases, is now under attack by Cook County courts.

In the past decade since the project’s launch, Northwestern students have helped to free 11 death row inmates.


Certainly not bad for a bunch of college kids.

The case of a man convicted of a fatal gunshot attack on a security guard in the late 1970s, however, has prompted the Cook County Circuit Court to subpoena the “grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expensive reports and e-mail messages of the journalism students themselves.”

Apparently, some prosecutors claim that they need to better understand whether students believed they would receive better grades for essentially coercing their sources to provide evidence alluding to McKinney’s innocence. So basically, the court is calling the students’ method into question here.

My question is, essentially, then…say WHAT?

Am I the only one here who finds this insulting?

I mean, first of all, this annoys me because it implies that the students weren’t behaving as competent  journalists.

This, I guess, is actually a big part of the problem.

But, you know, seeing as how student journalists aren’t actually ‘journalists’…I guess this shouldn’t come as such a blaring shock to me or any of my peers.

These STUDENT journalists need to be scrutinized as far as courtroom scrutiny can essentially go because their efforts can’t be trusted without the concrete wisdom of a paycheck… at least that’s what the House had to say about it.

Bluntly put, I think this is a waste of time.

I don’t fully understand why the court has to look over the students’ ‘methods.’ I mean, unless they’re assuming that upper level student journalists don’t know how to tell the truth and are so blatantly willing to discard all notions of journalistic integrity for the possibility of a higher grade, I really don’t think there’s a lot to look into. I mean, really…what has changed? Did good journalism then mean something different than it does now?

The main reason that this subpoena really irks me is that it assumes that not only were the students willing to completely violate the tenets of good journalism, but the entire idea of justice itself…and for what? To bump a ‘B’ paper up to ‘A’ level? Ridiculous.

You know, it really is upsetting that we’re still debating the whole shield law issue. This is a guarantee that, in my opinion, should have already been set in stone for student journalists decades ago.

No, we’re not paid to do journalism, but here’s a fact that everyone else out there seems to be forgetting: we PAY to do journalism.

We invest so much time and effort into pursuing journalistic passions, and that, I think, says a lot about our motives. We’re here (most of us, anyway) because we want to be here…because we have to be here to prepare for careers that revolve around the very notion of exposing truth.

The really sad thing is that when things like this happen, you always have to be wary of a chilling effect. Really, as the entire realm of investigative journalism threatens to exist only in small niche markets, and as more and more outlets are closing down major bureaus, fear and perpetual skittishness are the last things this industry needs. We need people to get excited about the idea of revelation.

Really, isn’t that what the Medill project is supposed to be all about?

Take a look at the homepage for Northwestern’s undergraduate journalism program:




Could I?


The real question is, however, could I really “do the same” while in the process of earning that degree?

What we don’t need is a mass exodus from investigative journalism and truth seeking. We don’t need more fluff.

The bottom line is simply that we can’t have a generation of journalism students who are afraid to dig.


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