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Student reporting project on Puerto Rico receives international recognition

November 28, 2012

An Arizona State University student reporting project on Puerto Rico is getting international distribution through BBC Mundo and the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting.

BBC Mundo, the BBC’s Spanish-language news site, ran two stories from “Unsettled Territory” in Spanish earlier this month, and FCIR published part of the project online in October. The series also is being distributed through Cronkite News Service to other media outlets around the country.

The multimedia project, supported by the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, was reported and produced by 18 students in ASU’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It uses text, photos and video to tell stories about the territory’s immigration issues and its voter referendum on U.S. statehood. The students also produced a half-hour documentary on their experiences in the territory.

BBC Mundo published graduate student Joe Henke’s story on the statehood referendum as well as a story by graduate student Sarah Pringle on Puerto Rico’s struggling economy. Other stories from the project describe the recent influx of immigrants from the Dominican Republic, the Puerto Rican independence movement and the long-term effects of weapons testing on Vieques Island.  

“The trip to Puerto Rico was one of the most challenging but rewarding experiences of my life,” said Cronkite senior Molly Smith. “Getting lost in the mountains of Adjuntas or walking through the colorful streets of Old San Juan are memories that will stay with me for a long time.

“But the most beautiful part of the island was the people. From Myrna Pagan, a cancer survivor who showed us the beautiful but damaged island of Vieques, to Maritza De la Cruz and the group of women fighting for their homes in Toa Baja, everyone we met had a story to tell."

The students worked under the direction of Cronkite faculty members Rick Rodriguez, former executive editor of the Sacramento Bee, and Jason Manning, former political editor for During the Spring 2012 semester, the students researched Puerto Rico’s political, economic and cultural issues in a seminar taught by Rodriguez. They then spent eight days in March traveling around the island, conducting dozens of interviews, taking thousands of photos and shooting more than 30 hours of video footage.

“This project was timely in that it produced stories about Puerto Ricans’ recent vote on U.S. statehood, which could become a huge national issue, as well as unique takes on immigration, cultural identity, crime and language issues that could be subjects of any national debate on statehood,” Rodriguez said. “The students did an outstanding job of reporting, photographing and producing documentaries for the project. It is first-rate journalism.”

The project was part of the Cronkite School’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative, whose aim is to teach students how to report on Latino communities and border issues in the United States and around the world. It was funded by a $1 million endowment to the Cronkite School from the Howard G. Buffett Foundation, which is led by philanthropist and photojournalist Howard Buffett. Since 2006, his foundation has funded six projects that have given Cronkite students international reporting experience in countries that include the Dominican Republic, Mexico and South Africa.

Three of the school’s Southwest Borderlands Initiative projects have won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, which recognizes outstanding reporting around the world on social justice and human rights concerns. These include “Stateless in the Dominican Republic” (2012 winner), on undocumented Haitian immigrants in the Dominican Republic; “Crossing Lines” (2010 winner), a multimedia report by Cronkite student David Kempa about a man’s mission to help impoverished Mexican farmers; and “Divided Families” (2009 winner), on families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.