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News21 students investigate plight of veterans

August 25, 2013

The Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multi-university reporting initiative, has released a major national investigation into the enduring battles facing post-9/11 veterans.

In dozens of stories, videos, photos and interactives, the multimedia project documents the experience of veterans as they negotiate a federal bureaucracy that is often overwhelmed and ill-equipped to deal with them. The students analyzed suicide rates among veterans and the problems facing female veterans. They also investigated the records of charities that raise money for veterans’ causes and examined inefficiencies in government programs to process disability payments, improve tracking of health care records and bolster veteran businesses.

Major media partners expected to publish parts of the project include The Washington Post,, Center for Public Integrity, Scripps Howard News Service, Digital First Media, The Philadelphia Inquirer and a number of nonprofit online news sites affiliated with the Investigative News Network.

The project was produced by 26 students from 12 universities working under the direction of a team of editors led by Jacquee Petchel, executive editor of News21 at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

The work began in January with a video-conferenced seminar on post-9/11 veterans taught by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism at the Cronkite School. The students heard from multiple experts, conducted interviews and did extensive research on the country’s response to returning veterans and the challenges ahead.

Starting in May, they participated in an intensive 10-week investigative reporting fellowship based out of a newsroom at the Cronkite School in downtown Phoenix. The fellows traveled to more than 60 cities and 20 states, conducted hundreds of interviews and reviewed thousands of public records and government reports. Their most ambitious effort was to gather, organize and analyze all reported veteran suicides from health records in every state in the nation. Not even the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs has completed such an exhaustive analysis.

Downie said student reporters produced “a wealth of stories and innovative multimedia that greatly add to Americans' understanding of the challenges facing the nearly 2 million young, post-9/11 veterans returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan. Evocative stories, photographs and video bring these veterans to life for the great majority of people who have had little connection to the two long-running wars. And original investigative reporting, with illustrative interactive databases and graphics, holds government agencies and private organizations accountable for their obligations to the veterans.”

News21 is supported by grants from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. The work of individual students was supported by the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Women & Philanthropy, part of the ASU Foundation.

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. Previous projects have included investigations into voting rights, food safety and transportation safety in America.

Last year’s voting rights project received national attention for revealing only 10 documented cases of voter impersonation in the U.S. since 2000. The results were widely cited across the country and published in news outlets that included The Washington Post, and National Public Radio. The project has been recognized with multiple awards, including the National Association of Black Journalists’ award for top online news project of the year, an EPPY Award for best university investigative or documentary report from Editor & Publisher magazine and a special First Amendment Award from the Society of Professional Journalists.

The veterans’ project is the first under the direction of Petchel, who took over as News21 executive editor this year, after a long career heading investigations for newspapers and television stations around the country.

"Where else in America could a group of 24 budding journalists come together for 10 weeks and produce a project of this magnitude?” she said. “It was a phenomenal endeavor that resulted in enterprising investigative stories and innovative multimedia elements that any editor would be proud to have supervised. Luckily for me, I was that editor. To the naysayers of the future of journalism, I say, 'If 24 exceptional students can do this, so can we all.’”

Chase Cook, a News21 Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation fellow and recent graduate of the University of Oklahoma, said, "Joining the News 21 project was the best decision of my young career. I firmly believe the product will change the lives of veterans and inform the world of the struggles and triumphs of America's post-9/11 veterans. This project reinforced my belief that good investigative journalism is an investment (that is) desperately needed.”

Fellows for the 2013 project came from 12 universities: ASU, Central Michigan University, Florida International University, University of Florida, Kent State University, University of Maryland, University of Minnesota, University of Missouri, University of Nebraska, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon and University of Texas.

Individual students are funded by their universities and by several foundations. This year’s Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation fellows were ASU students Peter Haden, Rachel Leingang and Mauro Whiteman and University of Oklahoma students Bonnie Campo, Chase Cook and Kelsey Hightower.

Hearst Foundations fellows were ASU students Andrew Knochel and Jacob Stein, and the Reynolds business journalism fellow, who reported on veterans’ economic issues, was ASU student Chad Garland. Women & Philanthropy fellows, who specifically reported on issues related to women veterans, were ASU students Caitlin Cruz and Mary Shinn.

The Peter Kiewit Foundation of Omaha, Neb. provided funding for University of Nebraska fellows Asha Anchan and Riley Johnson.

A full list of the 2013 News21 fellows follows:

• Arizona State University: Caitlin Cruz, Chad Garland, Peter Haden, Trahern Wallace Jones, Andrew Knochel, Rachel Leingang, Kay Miller, Mary Shinn, Jacob Stein and Mauro Whiteman

• Central Michigan University: Catey Traylor

• Florida International University: Anthony Cave

• University of Florida: Meg Wagner and Hannah Winston

• Kent State University: Daniel Moore

• University of Maryland: Greg Kohn and Jessica Wilde

• University of Minnesota: Jeff Hargarten

• University of Missouri: Steven Rich

• University of Nebraska: Asha Anchan and Riley Johnson

• University of Oklahoma: Bonnie Campo, Chase Cook and Kelsey Hightower

• University of Oregon: Colton Totland

• University of Texas: Forrest Burnson