© 2024 St. Louis Public Radio
Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

What makes a journalist a journalist?

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Oct. 19, 2009 - Chicago prosecutors are demanding grades and confidential interviews from Northwestern journalism students who unearthed evidence that could free a man the prosecutors put in prison 31 years ago. The case raises the question of who is a journalist.

Are journalism students and their professor journalists?

A Chicago area prosecutor has subpoenaed the grades, syllabus, notes, expense records, emails and confidential interviews of journalism students at Northwestern University who uncovered evidence that could free a man who has served 31 years in prison for the murder of a security guard.

The prosecutors have subpoenaed the information from Northwestern journalism professor David Protess whose Medill Innocence Project has been instrumental in freeing 11 men since 1999.

The subpoena poses a question that arises often in these days of bloggers and citizen journalists: Who is a journalist? The answer is relevant to the application of "shield laws," which allow journalists to protect confidential sources in most instances. Shield laws are in effect in 37 states.

A federal shield law under consideration in Congress has a professional definition of journalist that would exclude student journalists. It would cover only those working for a salary or as a contractor for a news organization.

Illinois' shield law defines a reporter as "any person 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." With that definition, arguments could be made on both sides of the question of whether student journalists are covered.

The Cook County prosecutor seeking the information about Protess' students maintains that neither Protess nor his students are journalists and therefore are not covered by the Illinois Reporter's Privilege Act. The well-known Medill journalism school responds that the student reporters took journalism to the "nth degree" investigating the murder case for three years.

Protess agreed to turn over documents related to on-the-record interviews with witnesses that students conducted as well as copies of audio and videotapes. But turning over the confidential interviews, notes, emails and class information would undermine the ability of the Innocence Project to unearth information in future cases, he says.

"I don't think it's any of the state's business to know the state of mind of my students," Protess told the Chicago Tribune. "Prosecutors should be more concerned with the wrongful conviction....than with my students' grades."

A spokeswoman for the prosecutor's office said the subpoena is part of the search for truth in the case. "They have material that's relevant to the ongoing investigation, and we should be entitled to that information," Sally Daly told the Tribune. One student said she got the idea that prosecutors suspected that students got better grades if they uncovered information that helped clear the prisoner.

Anthony McKinney was arrested when he was 18 for the murder of security guard Donald Lundahl in suburban Harvey, Ill. The students interviewed a young man who had initially fingered McKinney, and he recanted his claim. Seven other witnesses told the students another man committed the murder.

Don Craven, acting executive director of the Illinois Press Association, told the Tribune that the prosecutors seemed to be trying to harass or undermine the investigation.

The judge is to hear arguments on the subpoena on Nov. 10.

The Innocence Project's disclosures were instrumental in persuading former Gov. George Ryan to stop executions in Illinois.

Illinois shield law

Definition of journalist:

(a) "reporter" means any person 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 includes any person who was a reporter at the time the information sought was procured or obtained.

(b) "news medium" means any newspaper or other periodical issued at regular intervals whether in print or electronic format and having a general circulation; a news servicewhether in print or electronic format; a radio station; a television station; a television network; a community antenna television service; and any person or corporation engaged in the making of news reels or other motion picture news for public showing.

(c) "source" means the person or means from or through which the news or information was obtained.

William H. Freivogel is a professor in the Southern Illinois University's School of Journalism, a contributor to St. Louis Public Radio and publisher of the Gateway Journalism Review.