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Cronkite students contribute to award-winning USA Today multimedia series

January 23, 2013

Two Arizona State University students were part of a USA Today multimedia team that received an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, one of journalism’s highest honors.

Cassondra Strande, a senior at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, and December 2012 Cronkite graduate Samantha Valtierra Bush helped produce “Ghost Factories: Poison in the Ground,” a multimedia investigative series on the health hazards posed by abandoned lead smelting factories. Bush and Strande contributed to the project while interning at USA Today, Bush as a rich-media intern and Strande as a video intern.

“Working on ‘Ghost Factories’ was one of the highlights of my undergraduate career,” Strande said. “Not only was I learning new skills, but I was able to apply the tools and knowledge that I gained at the Cronkite School.”

Cronkite alumnae and USA Today journalists Shannon Green and Maxine Park also worked on the project. Green, who graduated from the Cronkite School in 2009, serves as a video editor, and Park, a 2010 graduate, is a video journalist.

“It’s so very rare that students have the opportunity to contribute to such an important project,” said Mark Lodato, Cronkite School assistant dean and news director. “The work and this prestigious award are testament to their skill and dedication to journalism. We’re very proud of them.”

Published in April, “Ghost Factories” includes text stories, photos, videos, interactive graphics and maps and other multimedia elements that explore the environmental impact of lead smelting factories that operated from the 1930s to the 1960s but since had closed. Lead reporters Alison Young and Peter Eisler and a team of nearly 50 USA Today database, design, digital and visual experts worked on the project.

The investigation revealed that authorities failed to protect the public despite knowing for more than a decade that the soil in hundreds of neighborhoods near these factories might be contaminated with dangerous levels of lead. As a result of the series, federal and state environmental regulators have begun to take action at dozens of factory sites nationwide.

Established in 1942 by Jessie Ball duPont in honor of her husband, American industrialist and philanthropist Alfred I. duPont, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards recognize excellence in broadcast and digital journalism. A jury selects the winners based on “the strength of their reporting, storytelling and impact in the public interest.”

In addition to USA Today, this year’s 14 Silver Baton winners include pieces by CBS News, NPR and PBS’s “Frontline.” The awards will be presented at a Jan. 22 ceremony at Columbia University in New York.

“Ghost Factories” also was honored with an Associated Press Media Editors’ Journalism Excellence Award for digital storytelling and reporting in the 150,000-plus circulation category. The series also received the silver award in the 2012 Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Business Journalism, presented by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism, headquartered at the Cronkite School.