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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Wisconsin legislators’ budget maneuver also strikes against Ethics Center’s core mission

On June 5, the Wisconsin Legislature’s Joint Finance Committee added a provision to the proposed state budget that would require the independent, non-profit Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism to leave its home in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication.  The provision would also prohibit anyone employed by the University “from doing any work related to the Center for Investigative Journalism as part of their duties as a UW employee.”


This action came as a complete surprise, blindsiding WCIJ just as the budget neared completion.  No legislator has yet been willing to candidly explain why this punitive, unwarranted, targeted action was taken, much less why it was passed without any debate or opportunity for challenge.

If it remains in the budget, the Joint Finance Committee’s action will affect not only WCIJ, but the Ethics Center and J-School faculty, staff and students as well.  And the impact will be nothing but harmful for all.  The Center has had a productive collaborative relationship with WCIJ from the beginning.  That relationship is now threatened with extinction.  Reaction to the provision from all quarters has been vehement and overwhelmingly critical, but the budget bill remains unchanged.

As the Ethics Center’s incoming director, I am deeply troubled, angered, frustrated and astonished by the actions of the legislators who voted to act against WCIJ, the Journalism School and its students in this way. And I hope either they or the governor will reconsider.

The Center’s associate director, Prof. Katy Culver, has eloquently described the situation and its potential impact in a recent post to PBS’s Mediashift.  We reprint it below with permission, and we invite and welcome your comments.

Prof. Robert Drechsel

Director, Center for Journalism Ethics


Wisconsin Lawmakers Try to Remove Investigative Reporting Center from University of Wisconsin


Early this week, I awoke to learn that University of Wisconsin-Madison journalism student Mario Koran had won a prestigious scholarship named for a brave and talented young journalist who died last year while reporting in Mexico City.

Yesterday morning, I awoke to learn an overnight move by some in the Wisconsin legislature threatened the very collaboration that helped forge Koran’s reporting skills and imperiled my freedom to teach and influence young journalists like him. I am reeling from the juxtaposition, and every person who cares about moving journalism education forward should feel threatened by these events.

Screenshot from Mario Koran's "Lost signals, disconnected lives."

Koran is a student in our journalism master’s program and went on to the New York Times Student Journalism Institute, a program that draws two dozen journalism students into work with professionals to advance their reporting and writing skills. Koran won the inaugural Armando Montaño Scholarship. At just 22, “Mando” was found dead in Mexico City, shortly after beginning an internship with the Associated Press. The circumstances remain murky, but he had just finished an assignment about police violence. He’s remembered widely for his courage and passion for reporting.

Koran shares that passion, and he was able to stoke his fire through the Wisconsin Center for Investigative Journalism, a novel –- and award-winning -– collaboration. The non-profit and nonpartisan center partners with our School of Journalism and Mass Communication to employ student interns and pursue highly respected investigative journalism to serve the public.

Part of WCIJ’s mission is to serve as a government watchdog, helping ensure our representatives act in citizens’ best interests. To that end, Koran just completed an investigation into failures in the GPS technology used to track sex offenders. It led to hearings, at which legislators read from his pieces to reinforce the gravity of problems.

Under attack

So everyone associated with WCIJ was blindsided by an overnight move to expel the center from its offices within our journalism program. The school provides no funding to the center, which is supported entirely by outside grants. It receives free space through a facilities-use agreement, in return for guaranteed paid internships for students like Koran, as well as guest lectures, class visits and educational support.

The state’s legislative Joint Finance Committee on Wednesday added a budget measure barring UW from housing the center in its space. But even more critically –- and dangerously -– the measure purports to end any interaction between journalism faculty and staff and the center:

“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.” (See the full motion from Sen. Alberta Darling, R-River Hills, and Rep. John Nygren, R-Marinette)

This direct attack on our collaboration with WCIJ is an assault on our academic freedom, as well as on student learning. I had the privilege of meeting with Koran when he was just beginning his look at recidivism in the criminal justice system as a WCIJ intern. I told him I was astounded to learn of the proportion and cost of returning offenders to jail in the state and encouraged him to hunt for angles related to that. I did this in my capacity as a journalism professor, for which I am compensated by the university.

Threat to freedom and independence

To be clear: As written, the legislative budget measure would bar this conversation. Bar it. It would similarly prevent other things I have done with the center over the years -– reviewing intern applications, teasing out ideas from datasets, consulting on leads. And my association with the center pales in comparison with that provided by some of my colleagues.

(For a longer discussion about the motives of the Committee members adding this provision to the bill, read this article from The Cap Times.)

Clearly the measure raises constitutional questions, as a state institution that can bar us from working with WCIJ could also bar my writing for, say, MediaShift or the New York Times. And the measure is not yet a done deal. Cooler heads in the state Senate or Assembly could move to extract the provision or Gov. Scott Walker could use his line-item veto on it. Even the state’s most noted right-wing media figure, Charlie Sykes, called the action ”petty, vindictive and dumb.”

I hope citizens throughout the state and, indeed across the country, call on the legislature and governor to step back and recognize the danger of this kind of interference. Responses from the centerschool and university decry the impact on students and the climate for public affairs reporting.

Innovation on the line

Just last year, the center and school won the Associated Press Media Editors’ first-ever award for Innovator of the Year for College Students. Brant Houston, the center’s board president and Knight Chair in Investigative Reporting at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, said, “The school and center have pioneered effective ways to involve students in producing award-winning journalism in the public interest.”

Every educator, reporter and organization that champions forward-thinking journalism education should fear the legislature’s effort and the censorial intentions behind it. Efforts to kill the intern model here in Wisconsin endanger other pro-am efforts housed at public universities in other states. Our WCIJ interns work with text, audio, video and data in addition to and in service of their reporting. They are getting daily, real-world, multimedia, leading-edge experiences that simply cannot be replaced in a classroom.

In the end, they suffer. “My time as part of the original, founding class of interns at WCIJ was invaluable in launching my career,” said former intern Alex Morrell, who has worked for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, Green Bay Press-Gazette and Associated Press. “It taught me to think clearly and dissect complex issues with precision and confidence. It instilled in me the public value of fair, non-partisan investigative reporting and trained me to approach every issue and idea with the same vigor.”

Citizens suffer, too. No news outlet has covered the issues reported by WCIJ with its depth or sustained focus. The center’s free distribution of its work has informed audiences of 230 news outlets across the state and nation.

Fighting for press freedom

In a climate fraught with recent government surveillance of AP and FOX News reporters, every one of us must be vigilant. Students like Koran deserve the very best and most innovative models journalism education can give them. And citizens deserve the most full-throated defense of public affairs reporting and open government we can muster.

This brazen move against students and journalism is unconscionable. Our silence would be unforgivable.


for related commentary:

Read Prof. Deborah Blum’s comments on

Read the statement by Greg Downey, director, UW-Madison School of Journalism & Mass Communication