Are J-school students really journalists?

If a journalism school offers real world experience, should the students who participate be protected by reporters’ privilege? That’s a key question in a case involving a professor and students at Northwestern’s Medill J-school.

David Protess runs the school’s “Innocence Project” in which students investigate old crimes looking for wrongful convictions.  In the past decade, the school says, “[they] have uncovered evidence that freed 11 innocent men, five of them from death row.”

Protess and his students believe they’ve found another wrongful conviction and Northwestern’s legal clinic has filed a petition for a new trial. But local prosecutors are suggesting that the students may have been under pressure to prove the case in order to get a good grade in the class. As the Associated Press reports, the prosecutors have subpoenaed the students’ grades, private emails, notes, unpublished memos and expense claims. That kind of information would typically be protected by the state shield law but the prosecutors claim the students aren’t journalists, so they’re not covered.

The case raises concerns for all students who do “real world” journalism as part of their course work. And it underlines the need to bring shield laws up to date in today’s multimedia world when anyone can be a journalist. The latest draft of a federal shield law does just that, by covering anyone who does journalism, even if they don’t get paid for it.

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  1. When the case went to court today, a new wrinkle emerged. Prosecutors charged that two students paid witnesses to help them make the case for wrongful conviction. Read the AP story

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