From ScienceWriters: Journalism and democracy in Wisconsin

By Deborah Blum

For the past four years, I’ve taught an investigative reporting class at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (UW). Not typical, you might say, for a long-time science writer who spends most of her time telling stories about our chemical world.

But for many years, before I came to the university, I worked as an investigative newspaper reporter. And I think teaching it now is one of the most important things I do. I believe, no, I know, that a democracy cannot thrive in darkness, that we need a watchdog media to counter any government’s tendency toward secretiveness, that good journalists push so that information is honestly shared with the rest of us. To quote Walter Lippmann, an early 20th century American newspaper columnist and writer: “A free press is not a privilege but an organic necessity in a great society.”

I don’t throw that quote around in my class but I do begin any semester by reminding my students of the importance of open inquiry in democracy. I do quote another writer, T.H. White, on the need for clear and objective work, that our aim, in White’s words, is to “shed light not heat.” Oh, and I say that this is the kind of journalism that can give a voice to those who cannot be heard, the kind of inquiry that can balance the scales of power.

And I tell them that not all of us will become investigative reporters but that the skills we learn in the class — being a thorough researcher, being accurate down to the last comma, being a good and fair listener, being able to both gather evidence and evaluate it — are not only good skills for any journalist but good life skills for anyone.

Why am I telling you this? Why am I writing this hymn to investigative reporting at this moment? Because my ability to teach an investigative reporting class was recently threatened — for very political reasons here in Wisconsin.

I teach my investigative reporting classes in collaboration with a small non-profit, the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism. WCIJ was founded in 2009 by Andy Hall, a long-time investigative journalist with the Wisconsin State Journal. There exists an agreement in which UW provides the center two small rooms (and they are walk-in closet small) and in turn the center provides training services to our students and also hires them as interns. They raise their own money for their operations. And they pay their interns, by the way.

Over the years, in my classes we have taken a public service approach to journalism, researched and reported on everything from the use of smart drugs on university campuses to employment challenges for U.S. veterans to student mental health issues to the management of Wisconsin state parks. Our plan this fall is to research and write about some of the important agricultural issues in our state. Nothing too controversial there, you might think.

But, astonishingly, the Wisconsin legislative joint finance committee inserted a motion into the proposed budget that would have banned the WCIJ from maintaining its offices on campus — and would forbid any university employee such as myself from working with the center. The exact wording in the official state budget, if you wonder, was to “prohibit UW employees from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.” (Italics mine.)

This despite the fact that there was no apparent budget issue here except one that worked in our favor — we provide limited existing space in exchange for a remarkable benefit to our students. We heard later that a number of legislators had been irritated by stories the center had done independent of the university classes, reporting on issues ranging from school vouchers to environmental consequences of sand fracking in Wisconsin. But we heard only that the motion was in place. None of us received any warning or even a clear explanation.

I am proud of the instant pushback from my university. The dean of the College of Letters and Sciences publicly denounced the motion as an infringement on academic freedom. So did officials in the UW system. My department chair, Greg Downey, did countless interviews supporting the center and maintained an “action” page on our department website that provided links to information, petitions, and addresses of state officials to contact. Faculty members (including myself) wrote opinion pieces and blog posts expressing outrage and determination. Students who had worked with the center wrote to the legislature in protest.

And journalists and journalism organizations around the state and around the country rose to support us — in a chorus that finally resonated back home. In early July, Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, although usually allied with the legislators who had introduced the motion, announced that he would use his line-item veto power to remove it from the budget. The story of what happened, including Walker’s veto, is beautifully outlined in a report from Columbia Journalism Review (see below).

Downey, a historian, made a point about us journalists that I particularly like: “We found that the journalism community is more united by professional ethics than divided by partisan political- economic philosophy.”

And it’s because of that unity that I will be teaching my investigative reporting class in the fall.

This essay is adapted from “Journalism and Democracy in Wisconsin” which appeared on Blum’s Wired blog, Elemental, on June 10, 2013.

How Wisconsin’s watchdogs kept their home

By Anna Clark

The Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism (WCIJ) scored a big win, as Gov. Scott Walker, a Republican, vetoed a budget provision approved by GOP legislators that would have expelled the nonprofit newsroom from its offices at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The measure, passed in early June at the conclusion of a marathon overnight session, also would have prohibited university employees from doing any work related to the WCIJ (wisconsinwatch.org).

Policies about shared agreements at the university “should be set by the regents and … shouldn’t be set specific to just this particular program,” Walker said, according to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Walker’s decision comes after a sustained advocacy push by the center. But rather than simply sighing with relief, WCIJ is now launching a drive for its new Education Fund, which will support an existing paid internship program — one of the hallmarks of the center’s collaboration with the university’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

The center is also sharing lessons from the episode that other young investigative newsrooms might take to heart. The first of these is the importance of building a network of allies. This might seem tricky for a team of journalists that specializes in aggressive accountability journalism — not necessarily the friend-making business. But Andy Hall, WCIJ executive director, said that the center’s network is effectively what stayed its eviction.

In an email, Hall wrote that “the Wisconsin Legislature did a huge favor for the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism.” He continued:

By acting in secret in the dark of night, legislators galvanized public attention and generated support for the center from conservatives and liberals alike. We didn’t — and still don’t — know which legislator or legislators came up with this measure, or why. But the end result is that the center now has more allies, and a strengthened resolve to dig into important issues facing the state while training the next generation of investigative journalists.

Hall said that the attack forced the center to forge “tighter bonds with our existing supporters while also creating new friends among the public, journalistic, and educational worlds who care about a strong press, free speech, academic freedom, journalism education, democracy, and the Wisconsin Idea — the century-old concept that the resources of the university should extend to the borders of Wisconsin and beyond.”

This wasn’t a nebulous coalition. Hall said that more than 700 people, “most of them friends we didn’t know we had,” signed a petition supporting the WCIJ collaboration with the university’s journalism school. “Prior to issuing the veto, the governor remarked that he was hearing a lot about this issue,” Hall wrote.

Indeed, the anti-WCIJ motion led to a wave of media coverage: a lengthy log of news stories, opinion pieces, wire reprints, and organizational statements of support, is chronicled on WCIJ’s website. Hall noted that “two potent Wisconsin voices” — conservative Milwaukee radio host Charlie Sykes and liberal John Nichols at the progressive Capital Times — found common ground in support of WCIJ.

Those in academia, including administrators and faculty across the UW system, viewed the measure as an attack on academic freedom and took a strong stand in support of the center’s collaboration with the school. Greg Downey, director of the journalism school, was especially active in reaching out to faculty, alumni, and campus leaders, often through widely circulated emails and posts on the department’s website. Hall said that Downey’s “leadership, and passion for preserving the journalism school’s relationship with WCIJ, was inspiring.” (Downey’s own take on lessons learned from the episode: bit.ly/12xR5YB.)

“Also important were legislators — Democrats and some Republicans — who spoke out against the budget measure,” Hall added. “To me, the voices of students who have worked with [WCIJ], and our young colleagues in Madison at the [teen newspaper] Simpson Street Free Press, carried a special resonance. They wrote passionately of the value of the center’s work in their own educations and preparations for professional success. They stood with us. I still become choked up when I read those words.”

At the Investigative Reporters and Editors conference in San Antonio in late June, Hall participated in a “hastily arranged panel” that focused on what other investigative centers should do if they find themselves targeted by lawmakers. Hall and Lauren Fuhrmann, the center’s public engagement director, drew up a checklist (bit.ly/10uODBj) detailing how other investigative outlets can “prepare and respond” to an attack.

Before the fact, much of the advice boils down to telling your newsroom’s story, accurately but assertively: developing a values statement, making 990s and other financial forms publicly available, touting the impact of your stories and the success of former interns, and putting it all on a high-quality website. They also suggest that centers “nurture personal relationships” with their journalistic partners — editors, station managers, and others who use their work — by generously sharing credit and participating in conferences, parties, and ceremonies.

Should a legislative attack happen, centers must shift into red-alert emergency: “Drop everything else. This is your new life, at least for awhile,” Hall and Fuhrmann attest. They advise moving swiftly to post a statement, even if it has to be revised later, and assigning an employee to handle media requests on the issue. They recommend telling your story to anyone who will listen, including those who may seem “hostile to your newsroom — you may find that by speaking with them, you may develop some surprising allies.” To that point, they link to the Wisconsin Reporter, published by the conservative Franklin Center for Public Integrity, which posted a lengthy article (bit. ly/14jOwK9) that was sympathetic to WCIJ’s fight.

The fact that the four-year-old WCIJ could activate a diverse network of allies to respond to an unexpected and time-sensitive crisis attests to the respect it has earned. That support may have been pivotal in winning Walker’s veto — and it wasn’t conditional. Had the provision gone through, and WCIJ been homeless, its allies would have come through all the same: About 10 days ago, Hall told Capital Times that he had received “multiple generous offers” from across the state to house the center’s staff. Now, that won’t be necessary.

“How Wisconsin’s Watchdogs Kept Their Home” Columbia Journalism Review, July 1, 2013.

Anna Clark is CJR’s correspondent for Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Pennsylvania.