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Students to cover Tenn. federal justice system

In this Sept. 19, 2012 photo, John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former editor and publisher of The Tennessean, speaks at the announcement of a project that allows college journalists to cover the feder
In this Sept. 19, 2012 photo, John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former editor and publisher of The Tennessean, speaks at the announcement of a project that allows college journalists to cover the federal justice system in Nashville, Tenn. Seven students from Middle Tennessee State University's College of Mass Communication make up the inaugural staff of the Seigenthaler News Service, which will have a different group of students each semester and allow them to earn 12 credit hours.
Mark Humphrey, Associated Press

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Judges and news industry leaders say an innovative project that will allow college journalists to cover the federal justice system in Tennessee will give students valuable experience while holding federal officials more accountable.

Seven students from Middle Tennessee State University's College of Mass Communication make up the inaugural staff of the Seigenthaler News Service, which will have a different group of students each semester and allow them to earn 12 credit hours.

The initiative is named after John Seigenthaler, founder of the First Amendment Center at Vanderbilt University and a former editor and publisher of The Tennessean. Seigenthaler persuaded the newspaper's senior editors to allow the students to work out of the newsroom and publish their coverage of the U.S. District Courts and other federal entities, such as the U.S. Attorney's office.

Supporters of the project say it is unique because very few journalism schools have similar initiatives, and none of them includes coverage of federal courts. Seigenthaler and others say the absence is symbolic of the lack of attention mainstream news media have given to federal systems in recent years, making the public wonder what is really going on behind courtroom doors.

"I think this is going to be a model, because the (federal) courts aren't being covered across the country," Seigenthaler said of the project, which he announced this week at the annual Associated Press Media Editors convention in Nashville.

APME, an association of senior newspaper, broadcast and online editors served by The Associated Press in the U.S. and by The Canadian Press, works closely with the AP to strive for journalism excellence. APME also supports training and development of editors and promotes programs in online credibility and diversity.

Tennessean executive editor Maria De Varenne said a large part of the lack of federal court coverage is due to the economic downturn.

"So many newspapers were having layoffs. Media organizations were having layoffs," she said. "We clearly don't have the staff that we had two or three years ago. We cover courts, but we don't have somebody covering federal courts every day. This will allow us that opportunity."

Dwight Lewis worked at The Tennessean for a little more than 40 years before retiring last year as the newspaper's editorial page editor and columnist. He said the courts will benefit from coverage by the students, who will in turn gain "invaluable" experience.

"If you don't have people covering you, you tend to get lazy, or maybe not do the best that you can do," said Lewis, who will be an editorial consultant on the project. "And I think the courts will be under more of a microscope."

The students will officially start their coverage Monday. To prepare, they have been meeting with federal officials and judges, including senior U.S. 6th Circuit court of Appeals Judge Gilbert S. Merritt. Merritt told the students their work will make the federal court system more transparent and hold the judges accountable.

"When you cover the courts, you're not just reporting to the public, but you're making the legal system more just," he said.

Student reporter Kate Prince says she's looking forward to educating the public.

"A lot of people we talked to have said the biggest issue with no one reporting from the federal courts, is that the public ... is just kind of in the dark," said the 24-year-old, who is double majoring in electronic media communications for journalism and criminal justice administration.

"So having somebody in there to kind of lay it out, and explain it, and educate the public on the federal court system is fantastic."

The Seigenthaler News Service will resemble existing programs at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Communication at Arizona State University, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

News Service director and journalism professor Wendell Rawls said he hopes in the future to expand both the content and reach of the students' coverage, and to involve students from other departments, such as political science, business law and criminal justice.