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Cronkite student wins prestigious RFK award

April 26, 2010

A Carnegie-Knight News21 reporter from Arizona State University won a prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, the Robert F. Kennedy Center for Justice and Human Rights announced today.

David Kempa’s story “Crossing Lines,” about one man’s mission to help impoverished Mexican farmers, won the RFK Award in the college print category. It is the second consecutive year a student at ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication has won the award. Last year, Cronkite students also won the college RFK award for a project on families divided by the U.S.-Mexico border.

Kempa, who earned his master’s degree from Cronkite in December, was part of a team of Cronkite students who participated last summer in News21, a national journalism education initiative funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation. As part of the program, students from 12 universities around the country take part in topic seminars and summer-long reporting projects. The program has been headquartered at the Cronkite School since 2008.

Kempa, 26, of Pulaski, Wis., traveled to the U.S.-Mexico border and deep into Mexico to tell the story of Jesus Hernandez Arias, a Mexican native who almost died while trying to cross the desert. Hernandez, convinced that no one should have to take such chances to earn a decent living, decided to devote himself to helping farmers in a small Mexican town develop markets for their produce.

The story is presented in an innovative way on the News21 website with photos, maps and video interspersed. Text versions of the story appeared in a number of newspapers as well, including the Taiwan News and the Sacramento Bee.

The RFK Journalism Awards program honors outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Robert F. Kennedy's concerns, including human rights, social justice and the power of individual action in the United States and around the world. The awards were established after the U.S senator’s assassination by journalists who covered his history-making presidential campaign in 1968.

This year’s winners in the professional categories included the Wall Street Journal, the Washington Post and ABC News’ "20/20" TV program.

The awards will be presented by RFK’s widow, Ethel Kennedy, and committee chair Margaret Engel at a ceremony May 26 at The George Washington University in Washington, D.C. Winners receive a bust of Robert Kennedy created by sculptor Robert Berks.

In honoring Kempa’s work, judges said that he addressed the complicated issue of immigration “in a fresh way that contributes to efforts to solve the problem. The reporter found engaging characters and compelling situations. He connected their stories seamlessly, capturing readers’ attention on a vital and heart-rending social issue.”

Kempa said Ethel Kennedy called him personally to tell him he had won the award.

“She was very earnest and friendly,” he said. “I felt like I was speaking with a family member, but the thought kept bouncing around in my head: ‘I’m talking to an American icon!’”

Kempa, who now works in New York City writing the global markets and equities newsletter for Thomson Reuters, said he hopes to have more chances to write in-depth about topics like immigration.

“I was able to talk to families of Mayan descendents who were telling me that a large proportion of their town … had risked their lives to earn a living,” he said. “Winning this award … makes me feel like I was writing about the right thing.”

Kempa worked under the direction of Rick Rodriguez, the Cronkite School’s Carnegie Professor of Journalism, and Jason Manning, ASU’s director of Student Media, who served as managing editor of the ASU project.

Manning described Kempa as a talented reporter and writer “whose work ethic and dedication to good journalism shine through in this story, which challenges the easy assumptions that are so often made about immigration.”

“The students participating in this project are being given a rare opportunity – the time and means to do thoughtful, in-depth and challenging journalism,” Manning said. “We knew from the beginning that this story would be important, compelling and difficult to do. The News21 project provided the necessary support and resources, and David provided outstanding effort.”