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Editor Highlights the Power of Social Justice Journalism

Louise Kiernan’s reporting at the Cook County juvenile court profoundly changed her understanding of journalism and how she wanted to approach it.

Fall 2019
My Northwestern Direction

When I was a graduate student at Medill, I took a legal reporting class in which we chose a local courthouse to cover. Cook County Circuit Court’s Juvenile Division sounded to most students, I think, like the least desirable option. None of the local news organizations covered it on a regular basis, and there wasn’t much public interest in the news the court generated.

louise kiernan

Illustration by Bruce Morser

But I found it appealing and asked for that assignment. From the first morning I walked through the court’s metal detector, what I saw and experienced was a revelation.

Here, teenagers in the detention center upstairs would lean their mattresses against the windows on Wednesday nights so they could look out to see if anyone had lined up outside to visit them that week. Here, I encountered toddlers in party dresses who had been prostituted by their parents to buy drugs, chubby-cheeked fifth-graders accused of carrying guns and teenagers who had been abandoned by their mothers, only to grow up and lose custody of their own children. 

The time I spent reporting at juvenile court profoundly changed my understanding of journalism and how I wanted to approach it. I saw how government and policy and systems affect the lives of individuals who have little power or say in what happens to them. And I realized that those were the stories I wanted to understand and to tell. This is what journalism education at its best can do: bring us into the places and lives that transform the way we think about the world.

“This is what ­journalism education at its best can do: bring us into the places and lives that transform the way we think about the world.”

Much of what has driven my work since has grown out of that experience. As a longtime projects reporter and editor at the Chicago Tribune, my work ranged from leading the enterprise and urban affairs teams to examining child homicide and writing about the Great Migration. But almost all of it had, at its roots, a focus on issues at the heart of public affairs: poverty, justice, race, gender and class.

In 2010, I returned to Medill to teach and have been fortunate to count among my friends Jack Doppelt, the professor who taught my legal reporting class. Together, Jack, lecturer Kari Lydersen ’97 and I helped create Medill’s social justice and investigative reporting specialization and Social Justice News Nexus — ideas, again, grounded in challenges facing the vibrant, troubled city around us. In my classroom I worked to introduce students to slices of that city, hoping to help them strike their own journalistic spark.

Two years ago I took an academic leave to join the nonprofit investigative news organization ProPublica, leading its first regional operation as editor-in-chief of ProPublica Illinois. To work for a newsroom whose mission is to “expose abuses of power and betrayals of the public trust by government, business and other institutions” feels like the natural next step on the journey that started at the doors of juvenile court.

Recently, I returned to the building, this time because ProPublica was arguing for our right to publish information in a case being heard there. It had been 28 years since I first walked through the metal detector. So much has changed since then, in my life, in the court, in journalism. But the fundamental questions of justice and truth? Those remain. And they drive me still.

Louise Kiernan ’92 MS is editor-in-chief of ProPublica Illinois. 

An investigation led by ProPublica Illinois and the Chicago Tribune found kids were illegally being locked alone in rooms across the state of Illinois, a practice that’s only supposed to be used when children pose a threat to themselves or others. The investigation prompted emergency action by the Illinois State Board of Education to stop the practice. 

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