Jodi Cohen, who came to ProPublica Illinois from the Chicago Tribune, believes journalists can achieve more when collaborating with each other and other newsrooms. In the fifth of a series of Q&As with ProPublica Illinois staffers, Cohen talked with ProPublica Emerging Reporter Andrea Salcedo.
What inspired you to become a journalist?
It started when I was in high school and I had a fabulous English teacher freshman year. Her husband was the adviser of the school newspaper and she said, “Hey, I think you might want to try writing for East Side [the newspaper].” So I did. I loved it. They were very influential in my life.
And my mom was an English teacher and she is a really good writer. She always helped me with my writing and encouraged me to try to find my voice in my writing. My mom was my first editor.
What are you interested in investigating with ProPublica Illinois?
I’m really excited about everything we can do together. We are a small team, but we all bring different interests and different expertise. One thing I love about ProPublica is the collaboration with other journalists. I do believe that the more we work together, the more we can achieve. I’m excited that we’re already reaching out to partners throughout the state to see what we can do together.
How do you spot a good story?
A lot of it is intuition. You just kind of have this sense of, “Oh, that’s a good story. People are going to want to read that,” or “How is it possible that is happening? We have to expose this problem and try to make things better.” You try to know which stories people are going to care about or perhaps what they should care about. There’s definitely no formula to spotting a good story. You kind of know it when you see it.
What is the story you’re the most proud of?
One of the stories I’m most proud of is a series I wrote with two other reporters at the Chicago Tribune, Stacy St. Clair and Tara Malone. We uncovered that the University of Illinois had a secret admissions system that was used by politically connected applicants and their families, other people with influence. The system had become so formal that there was a separate category for the applicants called category “I.” The stories led to a lot of change ... Nearly the entire leadership of the university changed. Most importantly, the admissions system became equal for all applicants. As an investigative reporter, you want to hold powerful people and institutions accountable, and in this instance it was the trustees of the University of Illinois, the most prestigious public university in the state. You also want to protect people who do not have power. In this instance, we helped make the system more equitable for all students.
What has been the biggest lesson journalism has taught you?
To listen. To be empathetic. Just to really take the time to listen to people’s stories and listen to what they have to say.