COLLEGE PARK (8/8/18) — The investigative reporting curriculum at the University of Maryland Philip Merrill College of Journalism is about to get even stronger.
As one of two universities selected to host the new Howard Center for Investigative Journalism — announced by the Scripps Howard Foundation Monday — the Merrill College will pour the foundation’s $3 million investment into recruiting diverse classes of standout students and training them in ethical research and reporting methods and compelling multimedia storytelling.
In partnership with news organizations and journalism schools across the country, Merrill College intends to use the Howard Center to prepare the next generation of watchdog reporters to hold the powerful accountable.
The nationally and internationally significant investigations published by the center will complement the work of Capital News Service, the college’s student-staffed nonprofit news organization that has won numerous national and regional journalism awards in its 28 years.
“Our gifted faculty members at Merrill College have done a remarkable job over the years providing challenging investigative and enterprise reporting experiences for our students in partnership with many local and national news organizations,” Dean Lucy A. Dalglish said. The Howard Center she added, will foster even more vibrant opportunities — building on the college’s legacy.
This year, a project by students in the CNS Data Lab and Baltimore Urban Affairs Reporting classes won the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award for “Home Sick,” an investigation published in partnership with Kaiser Health News that showed how substandard living conditions can contribute to illnesses such as asthma.
Students guided by Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism Sandy Banisky interviewed dozens of Baltimore health officials, community leaders and residents as CNS data editor Sean Mussenden‘s students spent more than a year analyzing millions of medical records to identify city neighborhoods where living conditions had the worst effects on residents’ health.
Banisky said Merrill College students have an opportunity many professionals do not — to spend a semester or longer diving deep into a subject. Such reporting produces more compelling and impactful stories.
“Researchers long ago established that asthma is more prevalent in less affluent neighborhoods,” Banisky said. “Our reporters could spend a semester in one neighborhood and establish that the trash in the alley was more than unsightly — it actually was the source of asthma triggers.”
Mussenden said data reporting was key to the project and others through the years.
“Our students’ ability to responsibly analyze complex data sets, and use those findings as a foundation on which to build layered investigations … has set the tone for Capital News Service projects over the last decade,” he said.
The news service became even more focused on deep dives this year, when it launched a formal investigative bureau with funding from the Park Foundation.
Associate Professor of Investigative Journalism Deborah Nelson, working with Chicago-based Injustice Watch, led the bureau this year in reporting on people who were wrongly arrested by members of a corrupt Baltimore Police task force. Some who were charged chose to plead guilty rather than face trial and risk a potentially lengthy prison sentence.
“Given that more than 90 percent of convictions nationwide are from guilty pleas, if even a small fraction of are innocent, it would be a significant miscarriage of justice,” said Nelson, a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner. “Because plea deals are negotiated in the hallways and backrooms of local courthouses, it’s important to have reporters on the scene to watch and listen, to witness and report.”
Meanwhile, the CNS field producing team — led by Eleanor Merrill Distinguished Visiting Fellow Tom Bettag — worked with PBS NewsHour correspondent John Yang to show how the opposite choices made by two brothers wrongfully convicted of the same murder in Chicago dramatically changed their lives. The students did all the shooting and all the editing of a piece that aired on the NewsHour.
Merrill College students, Injustice Watch and a network of investigative teams based at universities across the country are continuing work on the project, “Trading Away Justice.”
Also with assistance from the Park Foundation, Dana Priest — the college’s John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism — sent students to five southern states last semester to report on what’s being done and how people feel about Confederate statues in front of county courthouses. Upcoming investigations by Priest’s classes will look at the fate of an imprisoned journalist overseas and how certain U.S. agencies care for veterans.
Another recent investigation, “Strength and Shame,” was reported and told by CNS’ visual storytelling team, ViewFinder. The documentary-style story about the deadly abuse of heroin, prescription painkillers and other opioids was aired on Maryland Public Television in February.
Lecturer Bethany Swain, who founded ViewFinder at Merrill College, said what started as a semester-long project grew to more than a year once she and her students realized they could tell a story that might not otherwise be told.
“We never imagined when we first started that it would turn into such an in-depth project,” Swain said. “But the stories are so compelling and it’s not unique to our area, which is why it resonated with other audiences.”
Swain’s class, like so many others at Merrill College, had the opportunity to dig deep and produce something special.
Now, the Howard Center — at Maryland and at Arizona State University — will provide students with even more opportunities to tell unique stories.
“At Merrill College, my students and I can take risks, and that’s what investigative journalism is all about,” Priest said. “Lonely digging while everyone else is chasing the same ball.”