Speakers share investigative reporting tips, experiences

Female journalist speaks in front of students.

Pulitzer Prize winner Patricia Callahan talks to cherubs about investigative journalism. Photo by Mia Zanzucchi

Cherubs learned how investigative journalists work by hearing from professional and student reporters who do it. During the five weeks, they heard from Pulitzer Prize winner Patricia “Trish” Callahan, instructor Stephanie Zimmermann and former cherubs Catherine Kim and Erica Snow.

Callahan, a former investigative reporter at the Chicago Tribune and a member of the Medill Hall of Achievement, shared highlights of her career with cherubs and explained the investigative process that has earned numerous awards for her reporting.

Callahan launched the Tribune investigation that discovered the hidden hazard of Magnetix toys and showed that the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission had failed to protect children. Her investigation prompted the recall of more than 1 million baby products, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting and spurred Congress to pass the largest overhaul of consumer product safety laws in a generation.

“Trish’s dedication to finding the truth and uncovering stories is inspiring,” Lily Richman of Los Angeles said. “It makes me want to be an investigative journalist and help the public by bringing the issue to light.”

Callahan will join ProPublica as a senior reporter covering business in August.

Zimmermann taught cherubs how to develop an investigative mindset and complete investigative projects by presenting her work on the high cost of air ambulance service. She showed how she interviewed patients who went bankrupt after exorbitant helicopter fees. She discovered a law passed in the 1970s “left a hole” for the air ambulance companies to charge whatever they want. In many cases, health insurance would not reimburse the fees.

“Sometimes victims are reluctant to talk,” Zimmermann said.“They are embarrassed that they lost money. As an interviewer, I have to be approachable so the subject will be willing to talk to me. The biggest obstacle was to get the company to talk to us. The goal of investigative journalism is trying to expose something that somebody else is trying to hide.”

After cherubs watched “Spotlight,” a movie about investigative reporting, three Medill Justice Project summer interns — Davis Rich and former cherubs Erica Snow and Catherine Kim  introduced their investigative work, which included cases that carried the death penalty.

The project examines possible wrongful convictions, probes systemic criminal justice issues and conducts groundbreaking research. Snow, Rich and Kim explained the application process to cherubs and shared how they research and investigate by interviewing criminals and reading Supreme Court opinions. They showed cherubs how their efforts as student journalists could make a difference to society.

“It was cool to come back from ‘Spotlight’ to see how young journalists are in action,” said Andrew Rowan of Cherry Hill, New Jersey. “If something doesn’t feel right, then investigate it. Keep that curiosity, and you will find out.”