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News21 students investigate marijuana legalization

August 17, 2015

The Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multi-university reporting initiative headquartered at Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication, released a major investigation Sunday into the issues surrounding the legalization of marijuana in America.

Twenty-seven students from 19 universities traveled to more than 23 states and interviewed hundreds of individuals to report and produce “America’s Weed Rush.” The project is at

Portions of the investigation will be published by major media partners, including The Washington Post,, the Center for Public Integrity, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the E.W. Scripps Co., Alabama Media Group and The Cincinnati Enquirer, plus a number of nonprofit online news sites affiliated with the Investigative News Network.

“This investigation goes beyond the general conversation of those who support and oppose the legalization of marijuana,” said Jacquee Petchel, News21 executive editor and a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist. “It takes you inside the lives of regular people across America, uncovering the complexities of this growing national issue.”

Petchel supervised the student reporters' investigative project with a team of award-winning journalists that included Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism; Pulitzer Prize winner Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism; Mike Reilley, the director of the Cronkite News Digital Production Bureau; Christina Leonard, the director of Cronkite’s Reynolds Business Reporting Bureau; and Brandon Quester, executive editor of the Arizona Center for Investigative Reporting.

Work on the project started in January with a video-conference seminar on marijuana issues taught by Downie. The seminar included special guest speakers from the U.S. Drug Enforcement Agency and pro-marijuana groups, as well as journalists such as Bob Woodward of The Washington Post.

From late May to the end of July, the student journalism fellows completed work on the project in an intensive 10-week newsroom experience based at the Cronkite School newsroom on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. Students traversed the country in multimedia reporting teams, interviewing marijuana advocates and proponents in both urban and rural areas.

“With 27 student reporters from 19 universities, we were able to dig more deeply into the issues and do on-the-ground reporting in nearly half the states across the country, producing enterprising stories, photos, videos and innovative multimedia for our many news media publishing partners that they would not have had from any other source,” Downie said.

The program is designed to give students experience producing in-depth news coverage on critical issues facing the nation, using innovative digital methods to distribute the content on multiple platforms. In the past six years, previous projects have included investigations into post-9/11 veterans, voting rights, and guns in America.

The investigation contains an unprecedented number of videos and databases, including a visualization of medical marijuana testing practices by state as well as a social media analysis of the evolution of views on marijuana over the past several years.

ASU student Jessie Wardarski traveled to six states in a two-week timespan, shooting photos and videos for the investigation. She said working with award-winning journalists such as Petchel and Downie was an extraordinary experience.  

“News21 has helped me realized that I love to do it all,” Wardarski said. “Everything you do is at the cutting edge. It’s really cool to work in this environment.”

The News21 fellows were supported by their universities as well as a variety of foundations and philanthropists. The students, their universities and the other institutions that supported them are as follows:

• Alexa Ard, University of Nevada, Reno
• Rilwan Balogun, University of Tennessee, supported by John and Patty Williams
• Josh Benson, University of Missouri
• Michael Bodley, Elon University
• Kathryn Boyd-Batstone, University of Oregon
• Katie Campbell, University of Florida
• Lauren del Valle, Hofstra University
• Quint Forgey, Louisiana State University
• Brianna Gurciullo, George Washington University, supported by The Kathryn Green Endowment and The Stephen Holly Bronz Endowment
• Brittan Jenkins, supported by Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation
• Calah Kelley, University of North Texas, supported by Knight Foundation and The Dallas Morning News
• Karen Mawdsley, University of Maryland
• Montinique Monroe, Oklahoma State University
• Martin do Nascimento, University of Texas at Austin
• Matias Joaquin Ocner, Florida International University, supported by funding from Knight Foundation
• Emi Sasagawa, University of British Columbia
• Nick Swyter, University of Miami
• Shawn Patrick Weismiller, Syracuse University

The ASU News21 fellows are: Tom Blanton, Jayson Chesler, Clarissa Cooper and Dominick DiFurio, all of whom are supported by funding from the Reynolds Foundation; Kelcie Johnson, Sean Logan and Anne Shearer, who are supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation; Alexa Talamo, supported by the Hearst Foundations; and Jessie Wardarski, supported by Louis A. “Chip” Weil.