Cronkite's News21 wins RFK Award for 'Hate in America'


News21 fellows traveled to 36 states during the summer of 2018 to report on hate crimes. Photo by News21 reporters

Students in the Carnegie-Knight News21 investigative reporting project at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University are winners of the 2019 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award.

“Hate in America,” a package of multimedia stories focused on acts of intolerance, racism and hate crimes across the country, won in the college category.

This is the fourth time a Cronkite School project has won the prestigious national award, the most of any university in the country.

Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who serves as executive editor for Carnegie-Knight News21, said the project came at a particularly timely moment, just a year after the Charlottesville, Virginia, protests and clashes between white supremacists and counterprotesters.

“This project was an extremely challenging endeavor in which our student reporters were asked to report nationally on one of the most controversial political topics of our times,” Petchel said. “And yet, in every encounter and interview, they found ways to tell the story of the oppressed and the oppressors, not matter how uncomfortable.”

The RFK Journalism Awards program honors outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Kennedy’s passions, including human rights, social justice and the power of individual action in the U.S. and around the world. The winning entries were selected by a panel of judges in several rounds.

"To tell a story truthfully and without bias, sometimes you have to travel to great lengths or to a place that makes you uncomfortable," said Justin Parham, a News21 reporter and ASU graduate student. "As an African American, I never imagined I would interview a member of the Ku Klux Klan. But winning a Robert F. Kennedy Award is a reminder that work around human rights and social justice is important."

Students, accompanied by Petchel, will receive the award at a ceremony at the Newseum in Washington, D.C., on May 23, as well as a $500 prize and a bust of the late senator and U.S. attorney general.

News21, launched in 2005, brings some of the country’s top student journalists together on one investigative project and has won numerous national awards for enterprising, explanatory and investigative reporting. This is the second RFK Award for News21.

In 2018, 38 journalism students from 19 universities traveled to 36 states, including a 7,000-mile road trip around the country. They conducted nearly 300 interviews — some from the middle of angry protests — and they reviewed thousands of pages of court documents, FBI data and state and federal statutes. 

Their work included 12 digital stories, a 43-minute documentary film and a five-episode podcast following the life cycle of hate. The content was published and aired by major newspapers and news sites across the country.

The student journalists found that more than 2.4 million hate crimes were committed across the U.S. between 2012 and 2016, based on an analysis of national crime statistics.

“The Robert F. Kennedy Award for human rights journalism is wonderful recognition for the timely 2018 News21 national student investigative reporting project examining hate in America in all its troubling forms today,” said Leonard Downie Jr., a former executive editor of The Washington Post who supervised the project in partnership with Petchel.

“Students traveled throughout the country to tell the stories of both the victims and perpetrators of hate suffered by African Americans, Latinos, Native Americans, the LGBTQ community, Jews and Muslims. We believe the immersive experience will help shape the careers of many of the student journalists in ways that will further the goals of the RFK Award.”

The Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights also announced the 2019 winners in 13 categories. The winners included the New York Times, Washington Post, Associated Press and ProPublica.

“Hate in America” was an eight-month project. The students spent their spring 2018 semester researching story topics, then traveled across the U.S. during the summer to do reporting in the field. 

Cronkite students who were part of the project from Arizona State University are Allie Bice, Scott Bourque, Brendan Campbell, Renata Cló, Alexis Egeland, Kianna Gardner, Jimmie Jackson, Ashley Mackey, Angel Mendoza, Connor Leavy Murphy, Justin Parham and Danny Smitherman.

Students from the 18 other colleges are Brooks Hepp and Tilly Marlatt, DePauw University; Rosanna Cooney and Catherine Devine, Dublin City University in Ireland; Emmanuel Morgan, Elon University; Lillianna Byington, George Washington University; Carley Lanich, Indiana University; Brandon Bounds, Kent State University; Katie Gagliano, Louisiana State University; Penelope Blackwell, Morgan State University; Bryce Spadafora, St. Bonaventure University; Garet Bleir and Lenny Martinez Dominguez, Syracuse University; Anya Zoledziowski, University of British Columbia; Tessa Diestel and Ashley Hopko, University of Colorado, Boulder; Jasmine Putney, University of Iowa; Brittany Brown, University of Mississippi; Kaylen Howard, University of North Texas; Abby Bitterman, Storme Jones, Emma Keith, Megan Ross and Rebecca Walters, University of Oklahoma; Andrew Capps, University of Tennessee; and Shelby Knowles, University of Texas, Austin.

Byington, News21 reporter and a former student at George Washington University, said working on the project was the most challenging and rewarding reporting experience of her life.

"As a young reporter, tackling hate crimes across the country in an investigative reporting project can be a daunting task, but we worked tirelessly to find voices in every state of the U.S. to tell the unheard stories of victims and perpetrators of this culture of hate and violence,” said Byington, now an associate editor at Industry Dive, an online business organization in Washington, D.C. “It was an eye-opening experience of public journalism that I was proud to be a part of.”

Past RFK Award winners addressed cross-national border issues.

In 2009, students in an in-depth reporting class at Cronkite won the award for “Divided Families,” which documented the effects on families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.

In 2010, News21 student David Kempa won for a multimedia story, “Crossing Lines,” about one man’s mission to help impoverished Mexicans. 

In 2011, students in an in-depth reporting class, part of the Cronkite School’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative, won for “Stateless in the Dominican Republic” which examined immigration and border issues in the Dominican Republic. 

The 2018 Carnegie-Knight News21 fellows were supported by their universities as well as a variety of foundations, news organizations and philanthropists, including The Arizona Republic, The Dallas Morning News, Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Hearst Foundations, John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, Murray Endowment, Myrta J. Pulliam and John and Patty Williams. Fellows also were supported by gifts honoring the legacies of photographer Charles Cushman and Irish crime reporter Veronica Guerin. 

The Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards program was founded by a group of journalists covering Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign and has grown to become the largest program of its kind in the world.

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