Students investigate USC through reporting initiative

The sun had only just risen when Sasha Urban, a junior majoring in journalism, pulled out of a rental car garage to drive down Interstate 5 to San Diego County, where one of his sources lived.

“Before the summer started, going to someone’s house to interview them was the most terrifying thing I could have ever thought of,” Urban said. “[But] I probably went to five or six people’s houses for [my] story, and it was so, so worth it.” 

Urban was attempting to interview the former UCLA health director regarding Dennis Kelly, a former USC doctor accused of sexually assaulting former and current students. His investigation into Kelly and the University’s response to decades of allegations against the doctor was his focus as a reporter with the Beacon Project, a summer journalism initiative created by the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. 

Participating students included Consuelo Cifuentes, who is pursuing a master’s degree in communication management; Sam Kmack and Ruby Yuan, seniors majoring in journalism; Austin Peay, a senior majoring in law, history and culture and classics; and Ashley Zhang, a sophomore majoring in political science.

The students worked full time for 12 weeks out of the Annenberg Media Center, investigating and reporting on various problems within the University. 

The Beacon Project was established following USC’s involvement in a national college admissions bribery scheme uncovered by the FBI earlier this year. Last spring, Annenberg faculty passed a resolution to independently investigate the University and its admissions system.

 “The school of journalism supported it, so that we were able to hire six reporters to be a part of this summer internship,” said Mark Schoofs, one of the professors who led the initiative. “Their job for the summer was to report on the University and related issues.”

Along with Schoofs, the project was led by faculty editors and Annenberg professors Christina Bellantoni, Gary Cohn and Gabe Kahn. During the summer, the reporters worked on the stories they pitched when they applied in April. While Urban focused on uncovering more information about allegations against Kelly in a report that was ultimately published in BuzzFeed News, Peay focused on investigating USC’s promises of transparency and the multiple internal investigations into the University. 

“We initially started to form [the internship] around the admissions scandal,” Bellantoni said. “We wanted to focus on that, but we knew this was a really important story. We said [to Urban], ‘Well, let’s see what you find.’ And he found material that [made us] sure this was indeed an important story.” 

As the final weeks of summer approached, students compiled their research and started drafting their stories with support from faculty editors. While both Urban and Peay’s investigations were published in Annenberg Media, Peay’s investigation was also published in LAist and Urban’s in BuzzFeed News.

“It was very independent,” Urban said. “They gave us so much autonomy … They really trusted us, like, ‘You know what to do. If you need to report, go do reporting.’ They’d say drive down to San Diego, and … I rented a car, and I drove down to San Diego [to do an] interview.”  

In response to Urban’s investigation, Interim Provost Elizabeth Graddy sent a University-wide email assuring that USC is doing its best to hear student concerns while balancing the sensitive information of open lawsuits. Additionally, the University reminded all students, faculty and staff of free counseling in the wake of the allegations against Kelly.

The University has not yet responded to Peay’s investigation. 

“It’s unprecedented for a journalism school to create a program to investigate its own University that upholds the highest standard of investigative journalism,” said Schoofs, formerly an investigative editor at BuzzFeed News. 

Annenberg offers several investigative reporting classes this fall, some taught by Schoofs and Cohn. The Beacon Projects ended with the summer, but several of the reporters hope to continue reporting as their stories develop.

“As long as you’re here, this is a community that anyone going here as a journalist has the ability to report on. It’s not something to take for granted,” Urban said. “This is the largest private employer in all of Los Angeles — the things that happen here matter to a lot of people.” 

This article was updated at 8:40 a.m. on Aug. 29. A previous version incorrectly stated that Urban drove to San Diego to interview Dennis Kelly. However, Urban drove to San Diego to interview a former UCLA Health Center director.

The Daily Trojan regrets this error.