Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.
Illustration by Rachel Edelstein.

Student journalists at Northwestern University are under fire — and for no reason other than their hard work and dedication to doing their jobs.

For 11 years, students involved in the Medill Innocence Project (MIP), a journalism program at Northwestern University, have been investigating the cases of death row inmates in the state of Illinois. The students’ work has been so successful that former Illinois Governor George Ryan cited the project when, in January 2000, he commuted all death row sentences in the state. The program’s efforts have helped prove the innocence of 11 Illinois inmates and led to their subsequent releases. But the most recent case taken on by the students has found them in boiling hot water simply for doing their jobs.

After members of the project raised concerns about a conviction decades old, Illinois prosecutors subpoenaed a number of the student journalists’ pieces of investigative information. Prosecutors claim that they want to see if students received better grades for finding enough evidence to prove suspects’ innocence.

Northwestern professor of journalism and MIP Director David Protess denies that students would have received differential treatment based on their findings and cites two people his students found who were indeed guilty.

Nonetheless, members of the MIP are being forced to turn over their program notes, grades, grading criteria, class syllabus, expense reports, audio and visual recordings and even their own e-mail messages to prosecutors.

Student journalists, like all journalists, need now more than ever to serve as watchdogs for both the public and private sectors. But that oversight duty and ability is compromised when prosecutors confiscate journalists’ findings simply because they don’t like what they hear. By subpoenaing notes and private exchanges, authorities are attempting to undermine the independence that makes journalism an important component of our free society.

In an October 25 New York Times article, Northwestern University said it was standing behind the students. Protess expressed concern about his students’ independence being chipped away at by prosecutors.

“It would destroy our autonomy,” Protess told the Times. “We function with journalism standards and practices to guide our work.”

In the state of Illinois, the applicable legal standards that would determine whether or not the students in the Innocence Project and their materials are protected are twofold.

First, the journalist must fit within the state’s definition of a “reporter” and must have his or her work published in a “news medium.”

In its shield law, Illinois defines a reporter as someone who is “regularly engaged in the business of collecting, writing or editing news for publication through a news medium on a full‑time or part‑time basis,” and loosely defines a “news medium” as any newspaper or other news source that is “issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation.”

Second, Section 8‑907 of Illinois’ shield law also stipulates that any order to disclose protected information must only be granted in the event that “all other available sources of information have been exhausted and, either, disclosure of the information sought is essential to the protection of the public interest involved or . . . the need for disclosure of the information sought outweighs the public interest in protecting the confidentiality of sources of information.”

While it is questionable whether or not the students involved in the MIP fall under the designations of reporters whose work is regularly published in a news medium, it is equally questionable whether prosecutors adhered to state standards and truly exhausted every other means of obtaining the information before they subpoenaed the students’ information.

The journalists have already willingly provided for prosecutors videotaped interviews of critical witnesses recanting their initial testimony. The prosecutors are simply overstepping their boundaries by demanding to see the students’ additional work, instead of investigating the cases themselves.

The members of the MIP should not waiver in their commitment to solid journalism and investigative reporting. MIP members need to keep sending a fervent message to Illinois prosecutors: do your own homework instead of copying off of someone else. And in the meantime, don’t punish journalists for doing their jobs.