Investigative Reporting Nets National Recognition for Columbia Students
By Laura Hoffman
An investigation into taxpayer-funded legislative scholarships has led to several awards for 12 undergraduate Columbia College Journalism students, including national recognition on Nov. 13 from Capitolbeat, the Association of Statehouse Editors and Reporters. Capitolbeat named the students’ “Secret Scholarships’’ series, published on the ChicagoTalks news web site in December 2009, as the first-place winner for online in-depth reporting – a category in which the students competed against professional journalists.
Since the stories were published, Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn has said he wants to end the secretive scholarship program.
The 15-week investigation in the fall of 2009 by a Columbia College journalism honors class led to 11 stories examining the process of awarding legislative scholarships in Illinois.
Emily Capdevielle, a recent Columbia College graduate who worked on the stories during her senior year, said students wanted to look into the qualifications for the scholarships.
"We just found out that there were a lot of holes in the program, and we wanted to see whether or not these students really deserved these scholarships, said Capdevielle, who now works as an editor/writer for a valuations firm in suburban Chicago, and writes for the national trade publication. "Because at the end of the day they are the taxpayers’ money; we are paying for those scholarships."
Students called each of the 177 legislative state offices to determine how each lawmaker awarded the scholarships. Students found that scholarship regulations varied from office to office and there was little regulation of the century-old program, said Suzanne McBride, associate chair of Columbia’s Journalism Department, who taught the honors seminar.
Capdevielle said the class worked for weeks to get to the bottom of why there were no set regulations.
"It's not just some story that doesn't really have an impact, because it is a huge deal," she said.
McBride said the recent award highlighted the investigative drive of her students, especially because they competed against seasoned journalists. She said she is thrilled the students' work received a national award at Capitolbeat's annual conference. "I'm proud of what the students produced, and we're honored that the investigation continues to be recognized.'''
The work was originally published on ChicagoTalks, and were picked up by newspapers in Champaign-Urbana and Rock Island, Illinois. The stories also won a regional Mark of Excellence award from the Society of Professional Journalists and the highly respected Peter Lisagor award from the Chicago Headline Club.
To read the investigation, visit ChicagoTalks' special reports section.