Defining journalists in Illinois

   If there were ever any doubt about the importance of the journalism community rallying around a single cause – the definition of journalist – the case of a professor and his students at the venerated Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University should settle the matter.

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Journalism students under attack at Northwestern

    David Protess founded the journalism school’s Innocence Project in 1999. Since then, information his students have uncovered have led to overturning 11 convictions, including the case of a man on death row who was 48 hours from execution.

     Their work largely was responsible for the former Illinois governor (not the guy accused of selling President Obama’s U.S. Senate seat) declaring a moratorium on inmate executions. Cook County Prosecutor Anita Alvarez, apparently sensing that Prentiss and his students were about to free a 12th inmate, has demanded student grades, expense accounts and e-mails.

     She has two theories:

     1) The students are not journalists and therefore are not covered by shield laws or case law that would afford some protection against overzealous prosecutors.

       2) The students may have been coerced into finding information leading to innocence because they would get better grades.

      This is both a tremendous reminder of the power of the journalist, and a chilling example of the power of the state. 

      Despite apparently sincere efforts, a spokeswoman for the prosecutor could not articulate how students’ grades or whether they received pizza money while working on the project had anything to do with the veracity of the information they uncovered.

      I have never heard of a judge reading the morning newspaper, becoming overwhelmed with an investigative report on the potential innocence of an inmate, sweeping aside his (or her, of course) oatmeal and calling the prison to release the wrongly accused.

      Journalists point out evidence that was overlooked, twisted or otherwise mangled. The judicial system is then supposed to investigate on its own. The fact Alvarez is pressuring a professor and students – and that she is arguing the students are not journalists – is outrageous.

     As for the key issue – who is a journalist? – the best response, I would argue, is the same given by the U.S. Supreme Court when asked to define pornography: I know it when I see it. In other words, I know journalists when I meet them.

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