Special to the Philanthropy Journal
By The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism
Nonprofit, university-based investigative journalism has taken its place alongside traditional news media as “watchdogs” for our society – and the award-winning Schuster Institute at Brandeis University, the first to launch such a program, is leading the way.
Since 2004, The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has exposed corruption from Boston to Bangkok, focusing on vitally important social issues ranging from human trafficking and modern-day slavery, to international adoption fraud, the exploitation of immigrants, corporate greed, and the American diet and health safety.
According to Florence Graves, the Founding Director of the Institute, “these investigations have saved lives, changed laws, altered the way governments and corporations conduct business, and have brought to light for millions of people some of the world’s darkest secrets.”
With the financial backing of philanthropists Gerald Schuster, founder of Continental Wingate Companies, a real-estate management company, and his wife Elaine, Graves now has a cadre of editors and student volunteers, based at Brandeis along with a “newsroom without walls” that includes 20 independent investigative journalists reporting domestically and internationally. Together they have produced a host of investigative articles and books that have led to important changes in public policies, laws and public opinion.
Most recently, Graves and her team at the Institute have focused on the wrongly convictions of two Massachusetts prisoners. One of them, Angel Echavarria, 48, has already been released from jail after 20 years in prison after an Essex County superior court judge threw out his murder conviction.
In the second case, George D. Perrot, 47, who has been imprisoned since 1987, is awaiting a precedent-setting ruling from Bristol Superior Court Judge Robert J. Kane in Fall River. At issue is the use of hair samples by prosecutors to secure two convictions of Perrot for aggravated rape of a 78-year old woman in her Springfield home.
The use of hair microscopy, the visual comparison of hairs under a microscope, pre-dated DNA sampling, and has been debunked as unreliable and invalid since 2009 by the National Academy of Sciences, other leading scientists and in testimony by the FBI, whose crime lab was used in many cases. Massachusetts, while known for its progressiveness, was one of the last states in the nation to pass a law permitting prisoners access to potential DNA evidence to prove their innocence. If Judge Kane rules in Perrott’s favor, the ruling could re-open hundreds if not thousands of criminal cases throughout the country. The Schuster Institute played a leading role in getting the law passed in 2012.
“In this new media ecosystem, The Schuster Institute performs a unique public service – investigating human rights violations and exposing systemic social injustice, nationally and internationally,” said Graves. “That means after we spent years looking at details of what looked like wrongful convictions, we got two men who had lost all hope back to court – and prompted Massachusetts to pass a law permitting prisoners access to potential DNA evidence. That means we exposed profound problems in international adoptions, resulting in a new federal law that closed down several shady adoption agencies. That means exposing everything from the American way of eating to the deadly legacy of U.S. bombs in Laos to cover-ups of ultra-Orthodox Jewish child abuse.”
Although university based, The Schuster institute is more like a think tank, said Graves. It selects unreported or underreported topics that require time, resources and a deep understanding of how to present complex issues in a clear, compelling manner. The Institute also seeks out partnerships with major news outlets such as the Washington Post, New York Times, Bloomberg, Business Week, Boston Globe, State, NBC, NPR, CNN and Good Housekeeping magazine. “Then, through multi-part, multi-media releases of our reporting, we inform the public, influential thinkers, policymakers and advocates — and make it easy for them to find the facts they might need to organize effective policy response,” says Graves.
“We are very much impressed with Florence Graves, her unique skill set and her social justice agenda,” said Gerald Schuster. “We want someone to tackle the issues that newspapers and other traditional media no longer have the time or the resources to delve into.”
Gerald Schuster noted that the Institute is now a partner of the Clinton Global Initiative, which, he said, “allows the Institute even greater opportunities to expand its influence in support of social justice and other important causes.”
Adds Elaine Schuster: “Our hope is that through investigative journalism, we can help change the world, one injustice at a time.”
The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism is the nation’s first investigative reporting center based at a university, and the only independent reporting centers in the United States whose central focus is social justice and human rights.