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By Lisa Diethelm
For the third straight year, students in the Carnegie-Knight News21 program have won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award recognizing the best collegiate reporting in the country on social justice issues.
It is the sixth time students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication have captured the prize.
The 2021 winning project, “Kids Imprisoned,” is the work of 35 student journalists from 16 universities across the country who spent eight months reporting on the state of the country’s juvenile justice system.
Working virtually from their home states during the pandemic, the students investigated private companies that run programs in detention facilities, conditions in detention facilities, policing practices, employee misconduct, and the impact of the juvenile justice system on families, communities and victims. They worked under the direction of News21 Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
The team discovered that juvenile courts across the country hand down justice disproportionately depending on geographical location, race and the arresting officers, judges, prosecutors and probation officers involved.
Sentencing for the same crime varied widely, from mentoring and rehabilitation to incarceration behind barbed wire in an environment of rioting and sexual abuse. Students found that about 200,000 of the nearly 750,000 cases processed each year resulted in young people being sentenced to a locked detention facility..
“There are terrible racial disparities in terms of representation in juvenile detention centers, from private camps to reform schools,” said Cronkite student Franco LaTona, who reported from his home in West Bend, Wisconsin. ”It's a lot of Black and brown kids, and many of them are not getting the kind of treatment and rehabilitation that's going to lead to a healthy, successful and productive life in adulthood.”
LaTona said he hopes the project sparks public discussion about ways to make the system more equitable.
Cronkite student Kelsey Collesi Ekeberg of Shaker Heights, Ohio, said one of the solutions may be to look at states that have had some success rehabilitating youthful offenders. “At the very least, the general system could look to where things are being done well and mimic those and follow in those footsteps,” she said. “At the end of the day, we’re dealing with children … and they deserve as many chances as possible and as much support and resources as possible in order to go on and live a fulfilling life.”
Despite being unable to work together in person or travel to do their reporting, the students produced 23 deeply reported stories, 35 additional reports with photo illustrations, a seven-part podcast, several video stories and created visual portraits by using projectors and video conferencing.
“That we were able to publish this project while working remotely from states across the country is a testament to the determination and dedication of each and every reporter on the project,” Petchel said. “Even with travel bans prohibiting their field reporting, they found families and juvenile offenders still willing to share their stories and challenges, particularly in marginalized communities. They pivoted in every way possible to make this project come together, and we are grateful for this important recognition.”
The RFK Journalism Awards program honors outstanding reporting on issues that reflect Kennedy’s passions, including human rights, social justice and the power of individual action in the U.S. and around the world. The winning entries were selected by a panel of judges in several rounds.
News21 students captured the RFK last year for a project on federal disaster relief and in 2019 for a report on hate crimes in America. News21 also won the RFK for a 2010 story on relief work in Mexico.
A list of previous Cronkite RFKs is below:
“State of Emergency,” a News21 investigation into whether the U.S. is doing everything possible to help individuals and communities recover, and they found large discrepancies between state and federal aid provided.
"Hate in America," a News21 multimedia package of stories, a documentary and a podcast that examined acts of intolerance, racism and hate crimes across the country.
"Stateless in the Dominican Republic," examining immigration and border issues in that country was the work of students in a Cronkite in-depth reporting class..
"Crossing Lines," reported by News21 student David Kempa, about a man’s mission to help impoverished Mexicans.
"Divided Families," which documented the effects of families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.
News21 was established in 2005 by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation to demonstrate that top journalism students can produce groundbreaking reporting on major national topics and present their findings in innovative ways.
Universities that participated in the 2020 News21 program were ASU, Butler University, DePauw University, Elon University, Kent State University, Morgan State University, St. Bonaventure University, Syracuse University, University of British Columbia, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Iowa, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Mississippi, University of Nebraska, University of Oklahoma, and University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
In addition to LaTona and Collesi Ekeberg, the Cronkite students who contributed to “Kids Imprisoned” were José-Ignacio Castañeda Perez of Phoenix; Daja E. Henry of New Orleans; Delia C. Johnson of Phoenix,; Chloe Jones of Tempe, Arizona; Haillie Parker of San Diego; Kimberly Rapanut of Mesa, Arizona; Jill Ryan of Bear, Delaware; Calah Schlabach of St. Michaels, Arizona; Katherine Sypher of Orono, Maine; and Anthony J. Wallace of Gilbert, Arizona.
Watch Carnegie-Knight News21's video: