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Davis, California

Friday, February 23, 2024

Guest editorial

Students at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism fighting against injustice are now beginning to experience it themselves.

As part of the Medill Innocence Project, between 2003 and 2006, nine teams of undergraduate student journalists under the direction of Professor David Protess investigated the conviction of Anthony McKinney – a Chicago man sentenced in 1978 to life in prison for the murder of a security guard.

The students conducted interviews in which key witnesses recanted their statements from the initial trial and confirmed McKinney’s alibi. Transcripts from these interviews, which were posted online, call McKinney’s conviction into question.

Given the exculpatory nature of the information the students collected, the state’s attorney in Cook County, Anita Alvarez, has slapped them and Protess with subpoenas, forcing them to hand over their e-mails, off-the-record interviews, expense reports, grades, grading methodology and course syllabi.

Alvarez’ spokeswoman said the state would like to see the evidence for itself and determine if grading influenced the students’ investigation. Northwestern University is fighting the subpoenas.

This over-reaching effort by the state of Illinois unfairly and unnecessarily violates the rights of student journalists.

A 1982 Illinois state law shields journalists from having to divulge information to public officials without a compelling public interest. But Cook Country prosecutors argue that the students should be viewed as an “investigative agency” instead of journalists.

Such an assertion is unwarranted and irresponsible. Student journalists perform the same function as their “professional” counterparts, and they merit the same legal protections. And at a greater level, excluding certain segments of the population from journalism shield laws undermines their protection and the ability of the press to hold those in power accountable.

Moreover, there is no compelling interest in this case to warrant the subpoenas. Claiming that the students were motivated by a desire to find exculpatory evidence in order to get a better grade in the class is equally irrelevant. Video recordings of the students’ interviews with witnesses were made available to prosecutors, and any goading or manipulation of the witnesses’ memory to produce a desired testimony would be evident.

No one person – journalism student or state official – approaches a criminal investigation completely dispassionate and without preconceived notions shaped by individual perspective. Therefore, the state should exercise great caution in isolating personal motivation of select individuals to discount the evidence they offer.

And even if state investigators have reason to doubt the veracity of the testimony produced by the Innocence Project students, they could simply conduct their own independent investigation. This would uphold the journalistic protection the students deserve and possibly settle McKinney’s case once and for all.

The state of Illinois should reverse its actions, and the efforts of programs like Medill’s Innocence Project should be encouraged, not hampered. Justice is not always served the first time around, but that doesn’t mean it should never be delivered.


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