October 07, 2010

SIUC gives investigative reporting a boost

by Pete Rosenbery

CARBONDALE, Ill. -- Journalism students at Southern Illinois University Carbondale will soon have the opportunity to participate in a public service reporting consortium that includes university students in three other states.

William H. Freivogel, director of SIUC’s School of Journalism, initiated discussions late last year with journalism instructors at other universities in the state about the potential for a regional network of student investigative reporters. Those early talks resulted in a recent $75,000 grant from the McCormick Foundation to the University of Illinois for the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium -- a group that will include universities in Illinois, Indiana, Wisconsin and Iowa.

The consortium’s goal will be to help offset the dearth of “investigative reporting muscle” that many news organizations face due to budget cuts, said Freivogel, an award-winning investigative journalist and deputy editorial page editor while with the St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

“Bill saw a need for us to address the lack of investigative journalism being practiced in newsrooms around the state and country as resources wither and news staffs shrink,” said Gary P. Kolb, dean of the College of Mass Communication and Media Arts. “This is a great opportunity for our faculty and students to be involved with a project that is culturally and politically relevant to the health of our state and nation. This kind of reporting informs, challenges and motivates action and is critical for a free society."

Brant Houston, the Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting in the journalism department at the College of Media at the University of Illinois applied for the grant.

While utilizing college journalism students to supplement the media’s investigative reporting efforts is ongoing in several locations throughout the United States, creating a network of journalism courses to provide stronger investigative reporting is new, Freivogel said.

While one rationale is the loss of investigative muscle by traditional news organizations, another is the continuing need for investigative work by reporters, Freivogel said.

“When we have corruption as blatant as the allegations against Rod Blagojevich, isn’t there always a need for more investigative reporting?” Freivogel said, referring to the charges against the former Illinois governor.

Discussions are under way on how to approach the project, Freivogel said.

While the initial goal is for students to work on two major collaborative projects, Freivogel suggests it might be good to have everyone involved work together on one project. The issue and project scope is still being determined, and it’s still undetermined when the work will begin. Freivogel will be teaching a new advanced reporting/investigations class this spring and said he will use it to work on an investigative project that is publishable.

Whether that project will be one of the consortium’s first efforts is unknown, he said.

Freivogel suggested some potential issues could include overcrowded county jails and health of the Mississippi and Ohio rivers.

Along with print media students, Freivogel foresees radio-television students, photojournalism students and cinema and photography majors also participating. He also anticipates a large Internet presence for the project.

There are many former award-winning investigative journalists who already have investigative centers at universities, Freivogel said. He believes media will commit to publishing the students’ investigative work once the subject is decided on and the work product complete.

“This will be good for journalism students and will take investigative journalism classes to a higher level,” he said. “It’s good for the news business by bringing additional muscle to investigative reporting in this area.”

New technologies should make collaboration by the participating universities easier, Freivogel said.

While the aura of one day becoming the likes of Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein -- the Washington Post reporters whose work at uncovering corruption nearly 40 years ago helped topple a presidency -- has waned a bit, students still hold interest in becoming investigative reporters, Freivogel said.

“If you talk to students these days a lot of them still have that motivation,” he said. “It may not be the Watergate-era that made it part of popular culture and celebrity, but it is still something that is appealing. The basic motivation for young people is still there.”