Medill Justice Project opens DC bureau

Julie Fishbach, Reporter

The Medill Justice Project has expanded to Washington, D.C., with a new bureau that opened this quarter.

The investigative reporting project covers potentially wrongful convictions and criminal justice issues. Julie Woon, who applied for a Medill Justice Project fellowship last December, said she expected her experience to be just like those before her, operating out of the Evanston headquarters for national investigations. MJP director Alec Klein, however, had a different path in mind, instead offering her the opportunity to extend Medill’s reach and help bring the program to Washington, D.C.

“It was interesting because I hadn’t done any reporting in D.C. before, so to just get thrown into is a little bit intimidating,” Woon (MSJ ’15) said. “You’re speaking with major players and to set up office and just walk over to the capital and start reporting was crazy. It was really cool to be breaking ground.”

Woon, who worked for MJP from June to November this year, was the first fellow to operate out of the D.C. bureau, which opened in September, Klein said. Although she was unable to relocate to Washington for the duration of the fellowship, Woon flew out for a short time to set up the office and report.

“The idea of the bureau was to look at the connection between criminal justice issues and public policy,” Klein said. “Washington, D.C., is of course the center of public policy in the United States, so it seemed like a natural fit as part of our expansion.”

Woon was sent to Washington to work on an examination of the lack of federal government oversight of shaken baby syndrome, a collection of symptoms indicating severe head injuries in children. A story on the investigation, the first to be published from the Washington bureau, was released last week.

Woon said working in Washington allowed her to attend meetings with congressional staffers, representatives and heads of federal agencies to investigate the story.

As the first fellow to go to Washington, Woon said she found some difficulty establishing a presence.

“It’s the same obstacles you see with any reporting in D.C., which is just getting those people to talk to you and finding that in, and making the contacts and building those relationships,” Woon said.

Amanda Westrich, MJP’s director of operations, said Woon’s story has been in the works for at least a year by various fellows.

Klein said much of the research was completed after the D.C. bureau opened.

“We weren’t even quite sure if we could even execute the story, but once we opened the bureau that kind of gave us extra momentum to get the story done,” Klein said. “The D.C. bureau is hopefully helping us when it comes to the public policy aspect of these issues.”

The current D.C. fellow, who began working this month fully out of the bureau, is working to produce a documentary on shaken baby syndrome, Klein said.

Although only one fellow works out of D.C. at a time, there has not been much trouble coordinating between fellows and staff working out of different locations due to technology like Skype, Klein said. Depending on the success of the current fellowship program, Klein said he sees potential for the bureau to grow and expand its options, perhaps one day becoming a site for the MJP internship program.

Beyond Washington, Klein said the program could potentially expand to San Francisco, where a new Medill program will open later this academic year.

“The Medill Justice Project is only limited by imagination,” he said. “There is so much we can do and should do, and we have been able to grow and have had so much success over the last several years.”

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