Defending academic freedom and investigative reporting

(Largely reposted from the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, where I currently serve as Director, but there’s a new bit at the end, which frankly I’ve edited a couple of times now as I try to gather my thoughts together.  In any case, don’t miss the WCIJ response and the official UW-Madison response too. I will collect other press at the SJMC blog Mediated Communication as it emerges. And Emily Eggleston’s Storify on the crisis is a good primer.)

My name is Greg Downey and I am the current Director of the School of Journalism & Mass Communication (SJMC) at UW-Madison. Today I learned that the Joint Finance Committee of the Wisconsin state legislature adopted the following motion into the proposed state budget last night or this morning:

Center for Investigative Journalism. Prohibit the Board of Regents from permitting the Center for Investigative Journalism to occupy any facilities owned or leased by the Board of Regents. In addition, prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.

Some background: A few years ago, the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at UW-Madison entered into an innovative collaboration with our colleagues at Wisconsin Public Broadcasting and a new non-profit and non-partisan professional investigative news organization, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism ( SJMC houses the WCIJ, and the WCIJ provides paid internships for SJMC students.

wisconsinwatchIn only three short years, this award-winning collaboration has resulted in a dramatic increase in the quality and quantity of both investigative reporting and public-interest data that is available to the people and businesses of Wisconsin. More importantly, this valuable information is made available not only through a central website, but through the free distribution of high-quality investigative news reports to private for-profit and non-profit news outlets across both the state of Wisconsin and the country at large.

The motion passed today by the JFC directly targets this collaboration, and as the current SJMC Director it is my judgment that SJMC, and UW-Madison, must oppose both provisions of the motion.

The first provision seems to arbitrarily single out our collaborative arrangement with WCIJ — where a modest amount of office space (most of which is used by our student interns) is traded for regular, guaranteed, paid internships for our students, as well as ready access to highly-respected investigative reporters as guest lecturers for classes and special events in the School. There are plenty of other arrangements where outside organizations use UW space for activities, if such uses are deemed to be in the interests of our research, teaching, and/or service mission. This one was, and still is.

The second provision is actually much more worrisome. As written it would seem to broadly and recklessly infringe on our academic freedom in terms of research, teaching, and service. Our faculty and staff regularly collaborate with outside organizations on media-related projects in terms of research, teaching, and service. Just a few recent examples:

  • A research collaboration between a professor and the Capital Times to study and make recommendations concerning the transition from a print product to a hybrid print/digital offering.
  • A service-learning collaboration between a professor and the South Metropolitan Planning Council to have students work in the south Madison community and create a web site promoting the diverse cultures and businesses of this area in terms of shared community and food.
  • An outreach collaboration between a professor, local for-profit media organizations like WISC-TV, and a local community development organization to create a hyperlocal news site staffed by student reporters and editors.
  • An academic staff instructor bringing an outside professional investigative reporter from a for-profit or non-profit news organization into a classroom to work with students on a real-world journalism project.
  • A faculty member working in cooperation with a for-profit or non-profit outside organization as an instructional mentor for a student completing an internship with that organization, combining a work experience with academic credit.

Our collaborations with WCIJ are of a similar nature to all of these — but with the added connection that WCIJ provides a direct and consistent pipeline for paid internships for our students, in return for the nominal office space we provide. These students go on to win local and state awards for their reporting, and to launch their own careers in public-service investigative reporting.

So to summarize: (1) arbitrarily prohibiting the WCIJ resource-sharing agreement (paid student internships for office space) would harm our research, teaching, and service mission; and (2) arbitrarily prohibiting “UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee” would be a direct assault on our academic freedom in research, teaching, and service — and on the Wisconsin Idea.

• • •

UPDATE: Let me add a quick coda to this post, more appropriate to my personal blog.  As I’ve responded to media inquiries over the course of the day, I’ve repeatedly been asked to speculate as to why the JFC added those two sentences into the budget at the last minute — “What have they got against the Center, or the School, or the University?” I have been asked.  If I were analyzing this event in the classroom, I might offer a whole host of possibilities for student discussion. Perhaps committee members truly don’t understand what our School, the Center, and this collaboration are all about; perhaps there is a real concern about facility costs or a lack of concern about student internship opportunities; perhaps a committee currently controlled by one political party believe they must root out a group they perceive as promoting a different political philosophy — but whatever the reasons, it is not my role to guess.  Rather, it is the responsibility of the legislators who have included this language in the budget bill to justify their reasoning.  I have not heard them make an actual public accusation of any sort; nevertheless, they have quickly forced my School, the Center, and really the entire UW-Madison into a defensive position.  That’s no good.  I hope that some investigative journalist asks the committee, “Why have you targeted the UW-Madison, the School of Journalism & Mass Communication, and the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism at the last minute, without public discussion or debate, in this budget bill?”  I think that’s a question that our students, their families, our alumni, and our many supporters across the state and across the nation would want answered.  And if legislators do have questions about the Center’s reporting, let that be stated bluntly — because the Center’s own record of integrity, transparency, public service, and “continual and fearless sifting and winnowing” can easily stand up to scrutiny.  As can ours.