By: Abdon M. Pallasch
Are student journalists journalists? “It’s our position that students are not journalists,” Assistant Cook County State’s Attorney Celeste Stack told Chicago Judge Diane Gordon Cannon earlier this summer.
Stack has been asking for more than a year that Cannon order David Protess — a professor at Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism — to turn over notes, class papers, e-mails and grades he gave his students who worked on a project investigating whether Anthony McKinney was wrongfully convicted of killing a security guard in 1978.
Illinois has a Shield Law that protects journalists from having to turn over sources, notes and the like. But the law doesn’t spell out whether that includes student journalists.
Maryland’s state legislature, reacting to this case in Illinois, voted unanimously in April to amend that state’s shield law to cover student journos.
During a break in the most recent hearing, Medill’s Dean John Lavine stood in the hall outside the courtroom pondering how his bustling newsroom of student journalists could be considered anything other than a newsroom.
“Medill has been doing journalism in the real world for 90 years,” Levine said. “We have the third or fourth-biggest newsroom in the city.”
Prosecutors in the hall offer a different argument.
“If I ever leave the state’s attorney’s office, I’m going to become a defense lawyer and use ‘journalism students’ to do all my research so it will all be protected,” one prosecutor said.
Over the past 10 years, Protess and his students involved with his Medill Innocence Project have uncovered evidence that freed 11 men, including five on Death Row.
The Cook County State’s Attorney’s office has sometimes accepted the work of the Medill students. But over the years, friction has developed as some of the prosecutors have felt their work undermined.
Protess feels this is the state’s attorney’s office taking revenge for his students undoing so many of their convictions. For close to two years now, instead of discussing whether to free McKinney based on interviews the students obtained with witnesses recanting their testimony, the discussion has been about whether the state can get force the students and professors to turn over more information.
The students coordinate to varying degrees with the criminal defense attorneys representing the men behind bars and that is in issue in this case. How close can the coordination get before it crosses the line from student journalism to the students serving as unpaid “investigators” for the attorneys?
In McKinney’s case, Protess and the students say he has served 32 years in prison for a murder he did not commit. The students never published any stories, turning over the results of their research to McKinney’s attorneys.
Prosecutors say that makes them “amateur investigators” and their research should be subject to the same discovery procedures as other investigators — not just interviews with witnesses that indicate McKinney’s innocence but videotapes of interviews that might bolster the prosecution’s side.
Judge Cannon, a former prosecutor well-rated in surveys of her fellow attorneys, has seemed to side with the prosecutors in her comments from the bench, though she has tried to solve the case without ruling so far on the big-ticket issue of whether student journalists are journalists under the state shield law.
“Does having a Website make you a journalist?” Cannon asked rhetorically. “Does going to journalism school make you a journalist? I cannot even fathom what is going on in Evanston, Illinois, right now. I would hope that for $50,000 a year they are doing something beyond interviewing people on 30-year-old murder cases. I think parents should be concerned that homework assignments are being given to attorneys and we don’t even know what those homework assignments are.”
“I hope her remarks are just off-the-cuff,” Lavine said, adding that the prosecutors should be looking at all the doubts raised about the testimony used to convict McKinney 32 years ago instead of trying to get a look at the students’ grades and e-mails: “What you should be focusing on is what happened in ’78, before these students were born.”
But the prosecutors argue that they have a right to comb through Protess’ e-mails to the students and their grades to see if students feel pressure to find evidence of innocence or ignore evidence of guilt to get better grades. Prosecutors say female students flirted with some of the witnesses to get them to recant.
Will Cannon rule that the journalism students must take the stand to answer such charges? The next hearing is Sept. 22.
Abdon M. Pallasch is a reporter for the Chicago Sun-Times.