SJR Column: Public Affairs Reporting, March 2013

When I accepted SJR Editor Bob Heisse’s invitation to write this UIS Perspectives column, I didn’t expect the word “murder” to appear in this space. But with a nod to UIS alum Nina Burleigh, it does today. Let me explain.

Burleigh is a journalist and author, and a graduate of the Public Affairs Reporting Program at UIS. The PAR program, an intensive one-year master’s degree, has a goal to prepare students to become working hard-news journalists covering issues of importance in their communities. What sets this program apart from the many other journalism programs across the country is a six-month internship covering Illinois politics as a fulltime reporter – essentially placing students alongside journalism professionals and “on the firing line” of public affairs reporting every day. It’s a formula that works exceptionally well and one that has produced a long list of award-winning UIS alums, including Nina Burleigh.

Thanks to PAR program director Professor Charlie Wheeler, who is himself a veteran newsman, I had the good fortune to meet Ms. Burleigh several weeks ago when she was visiting Springfield to spend time with our PAR students and to be inducted into our Bill Miller PAR Hall of Fame.

I’ve just finished reading Burleigh’s most recent book, New York Times bestseller The Fatal Gift of Beauty. Described as “clear-eyed, sweeping, compelling, stirring, lucid, and propulsive”, the book is essentially an “autopsy” of the trial (and the trials) of Amanda Knox, the American college student who was convicted on December 4, 2009 in Perugia, Italy of the brutal and sensational murder of her British roommate, Meredith Kirschner.

To research this book, Burleigh lived in Perugia, attending trial hearings and interviewing Perugian authorities, lawyers, friends and family members of the defendants. She also corresponded with Knox and Raffael Sollecito, Knox’s then-boyfriend and co-defendant, and dug deep into the evidence that was used first to convict and later to acquit.

What I found most fascinating about Burleigh’s reporting is not her account of the trial but her analysis of the complex cultural misunderstandings that contributed to the conviction of this young American woman, who the Italian media dubbed “Foxy Knoxy”, when there was, in the end, no evidence to support such a conclusion. What a fascinating piece of investigative reporting!

UIS alum Nina Burleigh is one of about 500 PAR graduates so far and she is in excellent company. Graduates include Dana Perino, who was press secretary to George W. Bush and is now at Fox News; Patty Culhane, who is the White House correspondent for Al-Jazeera; and Jim Webb, an editor for the Chicago Tribune who was also inducted into the PAR Hall of Fame this year.

As Chancellor of UIS, I’m proud that PAR alums have been recognized for the quality of their work with a wide array of awards, including 67 awards over the history of the Statehouse reporting contest sponsored by the Association of Capitol Reporters and Editors. PAR alums have also won two Pulitzer prizes! SJR readers will learn more about one of those alums this May when Kathy Best, managing Editor of the Seattle Times who won the Pulitzer in 2010, visits Springfield to deliver our commencement address.

On that day, our PAR students will be among hundreds of graduates who walk across the stage to receive their University of Illinois diplomas, continuing the proud tradition of the Springfield campus – graduating outstanding leaders in journalism and many other fields of study. We know that many of these alums, like Nina Burleigh and Patti Culhane and Jim Webb, will be influential in the years to come, contributing in countless ways to the betterment of their communities across Illinois and beyond. It’s another reason that we say that, at UIS, leadership is lived…every day.

Susan J. Koch, Chancellor of University of Illinois Springfield

Chancellor Susan J. Koch