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Northwestern probes reputed journalism program

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Northwestern University says it is reviewing a reputed journalism program that aims to overturn wrongful convictions, following revelations that students secretly tape-recorded some interviews in possible violation of Illinois eavesdropping laws.

At a court hearing Wednesday, Cook County prosecutors said documents they subpoenaed from the Medill Innocence Project’s investigation into a 1978 murder case show that undergraduate students secretly recorded an interview with a convicted criminal without his consent. The students were investigating the case of Anthony McKinney, whom the students say was wrongfully convicted of shooting a security guard in south suburban Harvey.

Illlinois eavesdropping laws prohibit tape-recording conversations without the consent of both parties, except in cases where it’s been okayed by a judge, or when one party has a “reasonable suspicion” that the other may try to harm them or commit some other crime.

Northwestern spokesman Alan Cubbage said Wednesday that the school has hired Jenner & Block, LLP, a law firm with offices in Chicago, to look into documents and practices surrounding the students’ investigation.

The students recorded the interview while a private investigator listened from outside, in case the convict tried to hurt them, Cubbage said. But that didn’t alleviate concerns that the students may have been put in harm’s way.

“Northwestern University expects that all of its students and all of its faculty conduct themselves in an ethical manner and obey all applicable state laws,” Cubbage said.

Cubbage said the final report will be handed over to Northwestern administrators, but he did not provide a timeline.

The incident is the latest in an ongoing feud between the Medill Innocence Project and Cook County State’s Attorney Anita Alvarez. County prosecutors have subpoeneaed hundreds of pages of documents related to the students’ investigation, and they’ve suggested that some students were so concerned about getting good grades that they paid off an interview subject.

In a statement Wednesday, the State’s Attorney’s Office said the students’ tactics “raise serious legal and ethical questions about the methods that the professor and his students employed during their investigation.”

Professor Stephen Ward, who teaches journalism ethics at the University of Wisconsin, said journalism students with little real-world experience should not have been sent into a potentially dangerous situation.

“I think that ... a program that tries to do this with students is actually going off the rails,” Ward said. “It’s actually going way too far in the area of advocacy journalism.”

Representatives for the Medill Innocence Project did not return phone calls for comment.

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