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Medill launches investigative project focused on local government accountability

Medill has launched an investigative project that focuses on government accountability in suburban counties around Chicago.

The Medill News21 Watchdog Project brings undergraduate and graduate fellows and interns together to work with accomplished investigative faculty to use public records to identify systemic issues and hold public officials accountable to their electorates.

Rick Tulsky, Pulitzer-prize winning investigative faculty member who directs the project, said: “Public records work is lengthy and painstaking, and most news organizations lack the resources to carry it out in a sustained way.  But it is something a journalism school such as Medill can do, especially given its close relationship with Northwestern’s computer science department.”

He said faculty and students working together are able to create and analyze databases, conduct shoe-leather reporting to flesh out stories and then create tools for citizens to access, explore and use the information themselves.  At the same time, students learn techniques of public records work and other investigative skills.  “We are less interested in isolated problems, more interested in patterns of behavior that defy democratic principles and what citizens should expect of government.”

Medill tested the investigative model in 2011, with Tulsky and assistant director John Sullivan working with students to collect and analyze thousands of public records that revealed Illinois, City of Chicago and Cook County officials who lobby and mix public duties with private interests.  The resulting stories ran in The New York Times, Chicago News Cooperative and Chicago Public Media and sparked calls for legislative changes to close the loopholes.

Fellows James Walsh and Alex Arkin have begun working on the News 21 Watchdog project, along with interns Elena Schneider, Katie Park, Sarah Freishstat and Alan Yu. Other students will join in the Spring and Summer quarters. 

“Watchdog journalism helps communities,” said Eric Newton, senior adviser to the president at the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. “A university that does watchdog journalism is performing a unique and valuable community service.”

The Medill News21 project was awarded a $115,000 Knight Foundation grant to launch, and is part of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative for the Future of Journalism Education, focused on the digital transformation of journalism education, hands-on news innovation and knowledge-based journalism.

The Carnegie-Knight Initiative funded curriculum reform favoring increasing topic-based knowledge for journalists, the experimental News21 digital investigative reporting project, and a deans leadership group aimed at making public statements about the future of journalism. It operated at 11 leading journalism and communication schools – University of California at Berkeley, Arizona State University, University of Southern California, University of Nebraska, Lincoln, Northwestern University, University of Missouri, University of Texas at Austin, University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Syracuse University, University of Maryland and Columbia University – as well as the Shorenstein Center at Harvard.

About the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation
Knight Foundation supports transformational ideas that promote quality journalism, advance media innovation, engage communities and foster the arts. The foundation believes that democracy thrives when people and communities are informed and engaged. For more, visit KnightFoundation.org.

About Carnegie Corporation of New York
Carnegie Corporation of New York is a philanthropic foundation created by Andrew Carnegie in 1911 to do "real and permanent good in this world." For more, visit www.carnegie.org

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Independent evaluation of the Carnegie-Knight Initiative.