Medill to collaborate with Better Government Association on environmental reporting

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Owen Stidman/The Daily Northwestern

Northwestern’s Lakefill overlooking downtown Chicago.

Eric Rynston-Lobel, Reporter

The Medill School of Journalism, Media, Integrated Marketing Communications announced a collaboration Sept. 26 with the Better Government Association to provide graduate students with experience in investigative journalism, particularly relating to environmental issues.

Three graduate students will be selected by Medill and BGA, a nonpartisan, nonprofit news organization based in Chicago. Students will work alongside BGA journalists to conduct in-depth investigative reporting, using data analytics and public records requests.

“It’s about providing information that’s in the public’s interest,” said Charles Whitaker, interim dean of Medill. “We see with issues like water crisis in Flint, Michigan, and lots of other environmental crises, manmade and otherwise, that it’s in the public’s interest to be well-informed about ways the government may or may not have contributed to those events.”

Whitaker said BGA initially reached out to Medill about the collaboration. Given BGA’s investigative work and journalism objectives, Whitaker said it felt like a “natural alliance.”

“They look more journalistic than a simple watchdog group,” Whitaker said. “If objectives of both journalism and the BGA is to shine light on problems … it makes sense for us to team up.”

John Chase, BGA’s director of investigations, said it is the first time the organization has had such a partnership with a university.

“We’re excited about it,” he said. “But it’s also going to be a learning experience, so there’s a little bit of learning as we go along on what the students are going to do, how we’re going to be working with the students.”

Students will work in the BGA office once a week and go out on assignment with reporters. The goal, Chase said, is to prepare them for work once they graduate.

Medill Prof. Abigail Foerstner — who helped create the Medill graduate environmental reporting focus — said it was a “gift” for her to help foster a new generation of environmental reporters through this collaboration.

“We want to make sure that we can tell the stories that people have confronted and that they want to share, and that we want to inform people who may not be aware of these situations, and watchdog reporting can do both,” Foerstner said. “Our partnership with with the Better Government Association will give students an opportunity to pursue stories like that.”

Foerstner witnessed the harsh environmental issues facing residents on the San Blas Islands of Panama, when she visited with undergraduate students. She said within the next 20 years, San Blas residents will be forced to leave their homes due to rapidly rising water levels.

“It’s critical to have this new generation of environmental reporters who understand the science, who understand policy and politics, and can kind of bridge that gap between some of the technical issues and some of the science,” Foerstner said. “It’s critical for us to tell these stories and to let people know that climate change is now and that the urgency is now.”

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