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Journalism Initiative with Public Interest at Heart

Medill News21 Watchdog Project to focus on suburban Chicago government

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March 5, 2012 | by Wendy Leopold

EVANSTON, Ill. --- An investigative reporting initiative focusing on government accountability in suburban Chicago has been launched at Northwestern University. Part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education, the Medill News21 Watchdog Project is funded by a generous grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation.

Headed by Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and Medill faculty member Fredric Tulsky, the project pairs Medill students and recent graduates with journalism faculty. Using public records, they work together to identify systemic problems and hold public officials accountable to the citizens who elect them.

The Medill Watchdog Project was piloted last year, and the results of its investigations by Medill students and faculty were published in The New York Times and aired on Chicago Public Radio. The first story was about elected officials who work as paid lobbyists for private interests.

The project is much needed, according to Tulsky, whose own investigative work at The Philadelphia Inquirer, Los Angeles Times and San Jose Mercury News raised public attention to systemic flaws in powerful institutions and led to significant reforms. “As anyone who remembers reading or seeing ‘All the President’s Men,’ working with public records is often tedious, time-consuming and frustrating,” Tulsky said.

 “Traditional news organizations have shrunk their news staffs, yet face more pressure to produce the news spontaneously,” he added. “That makes it increasingly difficult to dig through public records to document systemic problems. But the student body at Northwestern makes it possible to undertake such work, and the incredible wide resources of the university -- from engineering students expert at creating data bases and undertaking sophisticated analysis, to political science students interested in how government works, to Medill students eager to undertake research -- offers a rare opportunity.”

Medill students who were part of the early Watchdog project learned to use public records, databases, court records and other public records. In a relatively short time, for example, they uncovered not only the names of elected officials registered as lobbyists. They also uncovered the names of relatives and business partners of the officials registered as lobbyists.

“The painstaking work that led to that story and others required reviewing thousands of pages of records and the kind of attention and time that reporters in our 24/7 news cycles lack today,” Tulsky said. “But it’s exactly the kind of public service work that talented students can provide.”

John Sullivan, assistant director of the new initiative and a Pulitzer Prize finalist, joined Medill after nearly a decade working at The Philadelphia Inquirer. His investigative articles on the systemic failings of the city’s child welfare system earned him a Casey Medal in 2007.

For more information about the Medill News21 Watchdog Project, visit http://www.medill.northwestern.edu/newsreleases/archives.aspx?id=201616.
Topics: University