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Digging Deeper

UMD Receives $3M Grant to Create Center for Investigative Journalism

By Alexander A. Pyles

Exterior of Knight Hall

Photo by Stephanie S. Cordle

A donation from Capital Gazette’s parent company recognized the Philip Merrill College of Journalism for helping to keep the newspaper running after a deadly shooting at its Annapolis office last summer.

A new investment from the Scripps Howard Foundation will strengthen the Philip Merrill College of Journalism's longstanding focus on creating new generations of watchdog reporters to hold the powerful accountable.

As one of two universities selected to host the new Howard Center for Investigative Journalism—announced by the Scripps Howard Foundation on 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.

The center’s investigations 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.

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,” published in partnership with Kaiser Health News, which showed how substandard living conditions contribute to illnesses like asthma.

Students guided by Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism Sandy Banisky interviewed dozens of Baltimore health officials, community leaders and residents. CNS data editor Sean Mussenden's students, meanwhile, spent more than a year analyzing millions of medical records to identify the city neighborhoods most damaging to health.

“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,” Banisky said.

The news service this year launched a formal investigative bureau with funding from the Park Foundation.

One of its investigations focused on people wrongly arrested by members of a corrupt police task force who pleaded guilty rather than face trial and risk a potentially lengthy prison sentences.

“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,” said Deborah Nelson, an associate professor of investigative journalism and a two-time Pulitzer Prize winner who led the investigation.

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 editing of a piece that aired on NewsHour—part of the project, “Trading Away Justice.”

With assistance from the Park Foundation, Dana Priest, the John S. and James L. Knight Chair in Public Affairs Journalism, sent students to five southern states last semester to report on public attitudes and government actions surrounding Confederate memorials. 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.

“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.”

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