Constitution Day event recognizes importance of the field of journalism

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September 17 marked Constitution Day, a day dedicated to observing the passage of the United States Constitution and its impacts on modern life. On Tuesday, September 28, Ohio University will honor Constitution Day with an event titled “Free press, free people: the role of journalists in wrongful conviction cases. ”

The free event is co-sponsored by the OU Provost’s Office and the Ohio Innocence Project, or OIP, of the University of Cincinnati College of Law and is hosted by the OU Center for Law, Justice and Culture , or CLJC. The event will take place at the Athena Cinema, 20 S. Court St.

Pierce Reed, a graduate of the OU in 86, will host the event. Reed, program director at the OIP, said that there is a long-standing connection between the OIP and the OU, which helped establish this event.

“OU has been home to one of the strongest and most diverse Chapters we have,” Reed said. “But this particular event both taps into the work we’re already doing and caters to an audience that may not be familiar with programming, the arts and the sciences. And one of the things about OU is that it has such a great journalism school and communication programs that train so many people to get into media related work. And for people who work wrongly, the media has become one of our greatest allies. And we present an example, through this program.

The program will feature a talk between Mike Wagner, a reporter from the Columbus Dispatch, and Robert McClendon, the first person cleared thanks to the efforts of Wagner’s 2008 project, titled Test of conviction. Wagner’s report looked at faulty DNA systems in the prison infrastructure that kept innocent people behind bars. Thanks to Wagner’s exposure, seven men were exonerated.

Wagner, who started Columbus Dispatch in 2006, described how the idea for the project was generated.

“In 2006, the state passed a law that allowed inmates to request a DNA test, but the law was too restrictive on who qualified,” Wagner said. “So I suggested to the editors that we do this big project where we’re trying to find a way to identify the cases and pay for the tests, and then I contacted Project Innocence and we found a lab in Cincinnati that was willing to do free testing for us. “

Wagner said he and his partner had spent months putting together 314 cases – each representing a person who had requested a DNA test. Through their investigation, Wagner said it was evident that there were significant flaws in the way cases were handled.

“We found out very early on that these guys were being harassed by prosecutors and judges, they weren’t giving them a fair chance to get them tested, despite having evidence,” Wagner said. “And unfortunately, evidence has also been lost or destroyed in a bunch of cases. Thus, within the framework of the project, we selected 30 cases for the free tests. We published a six page series in January 2008 and I didn’t even write another story for a whole year which is very rare … but the story was so important.

Several months after the publication of the project, the test results were announced.

“We had our first test result and it showed Robert McClendon was innocent after serving 18 years for a rape he did not commit,” Wagner said. “(Overall) there were seven men who were released and four men were found guilty.”

Since the conclusion of the project, Wagner and McClendon have remained friends. At Tuesday’s event, the two will sit down to discuss their respective experiences and the ultimate impact of the role of the media on the outcome of the case.

Wagner emphasized his gratitude for this project and the relationship it allowed him to build with McClendon.

“It was probably the project I will remember the most and had the most impact,” said Wagner. “There is no reward or nothing that can replace that feeling. And that you have helped give someone back the life that was taken from them.

The event will allow the two men to share their stories, and there will also be specific time allotted for students to interact and ask questions, which, Reed said, is a very special opportunity.

“It’s really powerful for people to have the opportunity to meet a professional like Mike, but also to have the opportunity to talk to someone like Robert who is just an amazing human being,” Reed said. . “And as diverse as our clients are, they all show great grace and forgiveness in the way they view them. (Robert will) speak quite passionately and is very generous with his time. So like many people who want to ask questions, they are welcome to ask during this time.

Julia White, professor of political science and studies of women, gender and sexuality at OU, is the acting director of the CLJC. White said the event is significant in that it emphasizes the essential role of journalism in society.

“These are tough times to be in politics, but maybe even harder to be in journalism,” White said in an email. “We got used to hearing that the media is the problem. I think this event highlights the essential role of a free press and investigative journalism in the accountability of our institutions, even institutions like the courts.

This responsibility, Reed said, has gained relevance in recent years as the standards of journalism have been repeatedly questioned and slandered, often through political means. Through this distrust of the media, Reed said it created a dangerous domino effect.

“In the last five years or so, there have been so many attacks on the press and the media, where it really had an impact that I think was terribly disturbing, when you elected leaders, including former presidents. , treating the media as if they are the enemy of the state, ”Reed said. “It’s so horrible for democracy. But we’re also seeing the impact of how it affects people’s lives in very literal ways on the amount of misinformation and misinformation about COVID-19, for example. It’s heartbreaking because people have died because they no longer trusted the media in reporting on the importance of something like the COVID virus. “

With this recent increase in media criticism, Reed said this event is very important in that it amplifies the integral role journalists occupy, a role that can greatly affect government and societal systems.

“We try to remind people that journalists render an incredible public service by the work they do,” Reed said. “And it can literally save lives. These seven men would likely have died in prison despite their innocence had it not been for the help we received from Mike’s job and the way the system reacted in a way that the law did not. It is profound when you think that the media can have such an impact on a system or an institution like justice. But I think sometimes it takes that extra attention that the media provides and the impact of it is powerful. “

For journalists who may attend the event, Wagner hopes they recognize the potential their career path offers them.

“Journalists need more than ever to be inspired by their power and what they are capable of doing,” said Wagner. “It was life changing knowing that we were helping bring someone back to life. And that kind of work is why I still love being a journalist.

@laureneserge

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