July 11, 2012

UW-Madison investigative reporting collaboration honored in APME award

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism and the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin-Madison have won a national award for their collaborative efforts to produce investigative reporting.

The Associated Press Media Editors’ first Innovator of the Year for College Students award cites the Center and school, which since 2009 have collaborated in classrooms and through paid internships.

The nonprofit, nonpartisan Center’s stories have reached an audience estimated at more than 18 million people and have been used by more than 200 news organizations nationwide, while winning nine state journalism awards and training a new generation of investigative journalists.

Student interns have led investigations into the explosive growth in frac sand mining in Wisconsin, human trafficking’s toll across the state and homeland security readiness in the post-9/11 decade — a report that became a first-place winner in this year’s Milwaukee Press Club awards.

“This is a smart and innovative way for a journalism school to lead investigative reporting,” the APME judges said.

UW-Madison journalism students investigate topics of public interest under the leadership of Pulitzer Prize-winning Professor Deborah Blum, other faculty members and professional staff from the Center, which is housed in the journalism school.

“The School of Journalism and Mass Communication could not be sure what would happen when we decided to team with the Center for Investigative Journalism three years ago,” said Jack Mitchell, a journalism professor emeritus who serves on the Center’s board of directors.

“Our faith in Executive Director Andy Hall and his colleagues turned out to be justified. The Center has produced outstanding journalism and our students have gained the best possible professional experience.”

In addition to producing stories, the collaboration fosters a close relationship between students and faculty at the journalism school and the Center’s staff, who serve as guest lecturers and train students in skills including computer assisted reporting, mapping, data visualizations, public records, interviewing, ethics and nonprofit journalism models.

“Best of all,” Mitchell added, “we have provided the kind of public service the people have a right to expect from the University of Wisconsin. It is good to see this acknowledged by the Associated Press Media Editors.”

APME includes editors at print, online and broadcast news organizations, and journalism educators, in the United States and Canada.

Amy Karon, who collaborated with the Center in an investigative reporting class at UW-Madison, was hired as a Center intern and completed a master’s degree in journalism, said the experience helped prepare her for high-pressure, high-impact news coverage.

“My internship taught me core skills every good investigative journalist needs: The ability to pin down tough sources, clean and analyze messy datasets, and work in teams to produce complex print and multimedia stories on deadline,” said Karon, who covers the Wisconsin Legislature for The Daily Reporter and The Wisconsin Law Journal.

“I use those abilities every day now in my job as a statehouse reporter and I know they’re a big part of why I was hired straight out of school.”

Other UW-Madison students who served internships with the Center have gone on to work in journalism in New York, Idaho, South Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Russia and Haiti.

Brant Houston, the Center’s board president and Knight chair in investigative reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, called the collaboration at UW-Madison “one of the best models in the nation. The school and Center have pioneered effective ways to involve students in producing award-winning journalism in the public interest.”
The Center’s articles — about 70 major reports have appeared so far — are professionally edited and fact-checked, then made available for free to news outlets across Wisconsin and the nation.

A 2010 collaborative project revealed the widespread availability and abuse of the so-called “smart drug” Adderall on University of Wisconsin campuses. The student reporters were able to “score” some of the prescription drug within one minute at a campus library. The expose won first place in the investigative reporting category from the Milwaukee Press Club’s professional news contest.

A 2011 investigation into misleading claims made by the Wisconsin Milk Marketing Board and its multimillion-dollar marketing effort was a finalist in Investigative Reporters and Editors’ national contest for student reporting. The probe, led by Karon, also prompted the powerful agricultural board to stop making misleading weight-loss claims.

And in February 2012, the Center and a science reporting class produced a project in conjunction with the Investigative Journalism Education Consortium that found University of Wisconsin campuses were failing to meet the rapidly growing need for mental health services. This report appeared in newspapers in eight Wisconsin cities, casting light on a critical and undercovered issue.

Working as volunteers and paid interns, students played a major role in probing the political chaos at Wisconsin’s Capitol, including a computer-assisted analysis of 50,000 emails to Gov. Scott Walker. Some students volunteered during their spring break to aid in the analysis. That story also has been honored by the Milwaukee Press Club.

APME awarded two honorable mentions in the Innovator of the Year for College Students category:

• The Center for Innovation at Middle Tennessee University in Murfreesboro, Tenn., for reforming and reshaping its student media. The converged newsroom is a model for journalism schools and professional news organizations, the judges said.

• The University of Oklahoma for its commitment to transparency, offering users a simple, elegant presentation of corrections and open-records requests.

In other categories of APME’s awards, a Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigation into Milwaukee police officers who have been disciplined for violating laws and ordinances won two awards.

Also, the Journal Sentinel’s “Empty Cradles” project, which examined Milwaukee’s high infant mortality rate, was named a finalist for APME’s Innovator of the Year award. The winner in that category will be selected in September.

The full list of APME award winners is available at:http://www.apme.com/news/96997/Winners-of-2012-APME-Journalism-Excellence-Awards.htm . The awards will be presented at the group’s convention in September in Nashville.