Although only a freshman at Point Park University in downtown Pittsburgh, Marina Weis, 18, of St. Marys, has already made a promising start in her journalism career.
As the current assistant news editor at the university's newspaper, The Globe, Weis jumped headfirst into her journalism studies.
Last semester, Weis was hired as a work-study student reporter as part of the school's Innocence Institute, an investigative journalism organization which scrutinizes claims of innocence from inmates in Pennsylvania's state correctional facilities.
"It can at times be a grueling process, but the outcome is truly amazing when someone is exonerated," Weis said, adding that 13 people were exonerated since the program started in 2001. "It is a great experience because I learned a lot about the judicial system."
While working at the institute, Weis explained that her duties were multifaceted. After an inmate initiates contact with the institute, they are sent a multiple-page questionnaire asking them about every angle of their case. Next, follow-up letters are sent and specific people are interviewed in order to obtain the entire story, many times not heard by a jury.
Once a decision is made, if the case has a chance of being overturned, student reporters review all case files, including police reports and trial transcripts.
Students then write a complete narrative and timeline about the case once they believe they have obtained enough information.
"Many of the cases I worked on fell flat because the inmates failed to reply to inquiry letters," Weis said. "If we think the case really has merit, we send our narratives to a legal innocence organization."
She added that the institute publishes Justice magazine every two years, featuring many of the narratives.
Heading up the Innocence Institute is William Moushey, associate professor at Point Park. He is assisted by Marie DoRego, a grad student.
Weis described Moushey as "a great investigative reporter who is serious about his work and always searches for the truth."
According to the program's website, the Innocence Institute "investigates claims of wrongful convictions, raises awareness of the frailties associated with the criminal justice system, acts as a recourse to those working to reverse injustice, and provides educational training in investigating reporting to college students and professionals." The institute is one of the more than 30 innocence projects in the nation, but one of the few journalism-only projects in the United States. Students can volunteer and take courses connected with the institute as they become juniors and seniors.
Among one of the institute's current investigations is that of Ernest Simmons, 53, a former resident of Just for Jesus Challenge Homeless Outreach Center in Brockway. Simmons was convicted of robbing and murdering 80-year-old Anna Knaze in her Johnstown home in May 1992. He swore he was innocent, but was sentenced to death. The conviction was overturned after an appeals court determined prosecutors withheld evidence.
As part of the institute, students published an article about Simmons in November 2004 and another updated article in February 2011. Currently, Simmons remains in a Cambria County Prison on a probation violation.
This semester, Weis is focusing her efforts with The Globe student newspaper. Currently the assistant news editor, Weis said she is preparing to be the news editor next year.
"It requires a lot of responsibility because you have to come up with pitches every week and design the layout, along with headlines for next week’s paper’s news section," Weis explained. "New writers also need a lot of guidance and copy editing. It is a great experience, and maybe I will become editor-in-chief before I graduate."
Weis said in the future she hopes to obtain an internship somewhere in Pittsburgh, take summer classes and possibly study abroad. "After college, it would be my dream to work as a grad student and be hired as a reporter for a newspaper in Pittsburgh," she added. While at Point Park, Weis is double majoring in print journalism and multimedia.
Weis chose to major in multimedia, citing the fact that journalism is moving online and she hopes to master creating web pages by working with programs such as Dreamweaver, Photoshop and Final Cut.
"I have always loved writing ever since I was a little kid. It probably started from reading so much. I told all my English teachers I wanted to become a journalist, right up to the point where I wrote my senior essay on it," Weis said. "It’s kind of funny how I have never really wavered from my dream. So many statistics say college kids change their majors many times, but I feel very serious about my major even if I am told the job outlook is bad."
Weis began her journalism career while at St. Marys Area High School, where she began The Dutchmen Dispatch student newspaper. She has also been published in The Daily Press, The Ridgway Record and The Globe. Additionally, her finished narratives may be found online on the Innocence Institute website at http://innocenceinstitute.org .
"Growing up in a small town made it easier for me to get experience at the local paper," she noted.
Marina is the daughter of Vanessa and George Weis of St. Marys. She attended Elk County Catholic High School until her junior year, completing her high school career at St. Marys Area in 2010.
She is a member of the St. Mary's Catholic Church, where she has been an altar server since age nine. For the past three summers, Weis has worked at the St. Marys Community Pool as a lifeguard and has taught swimming lessons the past two summers. She continues to lifeguard and teach swimming lessons while working at the Downtown PNC YMCA in Pittsburgh.
Weis encourages fellow students to get involved in everything possible in high school and college, particularly those interested in the journalism field.
"Do not sit back and think opportunities will come to you," she said. "The journalism field is competitive and merging online everyday. It is important to be curious about what’s going on around you and be assertive. Read a newspaper everyday because the more you know about government, corporations, and just generally how things work, you will be more likely to be hired."