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Cronkite students win First Amendment Awards

April 12, 2012

The Society of Professional Journalists is honoring two watchdog projects by student journalists at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

SPJ Valley of the Sun Chapter is presenting First Amendment Awards, which honor high quality journalism based on public records or meetings, to projects by Elvina Nawaguna-Clemente and a team comprising Heather Billings, Tia Castañeda and Lauren Gambino. This is the second consecutive year that Cronkite students have won First Amendment Awards.

“It’s exciting to see this kind of high-level reporting being done by students,” said Perri Collins, interim president of the chapter. “Their reliance on public records exemplifies the role of journalists as watchdogs of the community, and their commitment to excellence is impressive. I can’t wait to see next year’s entries.”

As a business reporter for Cronkite News Service, Nawaguna-Clemente conducted extensive record searches and an in-depth investigation into the owner of dozens of dilapidated properties in remote Arizona communities such as Superior, Globe and Hayden. Her package of stories and photos provided an in-depth examination of claims by community leaders that the condition of those properties has hindered redevelopment and, in some cases, endangered the public. She reviewed notices of violation, court files and recorded documents to explore how the situation has affected the well-being of the communities.

That package also was honored by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers as the nation’s top student-publication business story.

Nawaguna-Clemente graduated with a specialization in business journalism and now works as a business reporter for The Ledger daily newspaper in Lakeland, Fla.

Billings, Castañeda and Gambino combined a review of state records and exhaustive reporting to produce an in-depth multimedia project showing that owners of 14 dams regulated by the Arizona Department of Water Resources weren’t in compliance with a state law requiring them to have updated emergency action plans on file with the agency. In addition to a text story, the package included a video report and an interactive map allowing the public to look up the status of all dams regulated by the state.

Billings, who worked as a multimedia producer for Cronkite News, the school’s news website, is a news apps developer for the Chicago Tribune. Castañeda worked for Cronkite NewsWatch, the school’s award-winning nightly newscast, and is now a producer at KJRH, the NBC affiliate in Tulsa, Okla. Gambino, who worked for Cronkite News Service, received a Fulbright award and studied this school year at University of the Arts London.

Students worked under the direction of Cronkite School faculty and received guidance from Leonard Downie Jr., Weil Family Professor of Journalism and former executive editor of The Washington Post.

Steve Elliott, digital news director of Cronkite News Service and the Cronkite News website, said the reports stem from the Cronkite School’s commitment to watchdog journalism as well as its students’ passion for projects that hold those in power accountable.

“It’s inspiring to work with students such as Elvina, Heather, Tia and Lauren who dedicate considerable time and energy to projects that serve the public interest,” Elliott said. “Their talent and drive demonstrate that the future of watchdog journalism is in capable hands.”

The awards will be presented April 21 at the SPJ chapter’s Arizona Freedom of Information Awards reception at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.