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Cronkite Student Reporters Win First Amendment Awards

March 23, 2011

The Society of Professional Journalists’ Valley of the Sun Chapter has honored two watchdog projects by Cronkite News Service, a professional program operated by Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Graduate Alyssa Newcomb of Chandler, Ariz., and junior Yvonne Gonzalez of Phoenix are among four Arizona journalists to receive First Amendment Awards, which honor high-quality journalism based on public records or meetings. They are part of SPJ’s annual Freedom of Information Awards.

Newcomb and Gonzalez won two of the four awards for their work in Cronkite News Service, one of the Cronkite School’s professional reporting programs wherein students provide hard-hitting reports on public policy issues that impact Arizonans. The other SPJ First Amendment Award winners were Craig Harris of The Arizona Republic and Andrea Kelly of the Arizona Daily Star.

In November, Newcomb exposed gaps in Arizona’s public financing system for political campaigns that allowed candidates to hire relatives and keep laptops and other assets purchased with money provided by the Arizona Citizens Clean Elections Commission. Earlier this year, the commission began requiring candidates to return fixed assets or purchase them from the state for half of the original price.

In May, Gonzalez analyzed financial disclosure forms required of state lawmakers to show that in most cases those forms didn’t yield estimates of the officials’ total worth. Her in-depth report also showed that some officials filled out disclosures incompletely or incorrectly and that the state had no procedures for checking the forms.

“We couldn’t be prouder of Alyssa and Yvonne for producing journalism that’s being honored alongside the work of professional news organizations,” said Steve Elliott, director of digital news for CNS. “As their distinguished work shows, our mission at the Cronkite School goes beyond educating the journalists of tomorrow to engaging with the wider community through reports that ask tough questions of those in positions of authority.”

Teri Carnicelli, president of the Valley of the Sun SPJ chapter, complimented the students’ work, saying: "We know that, as tough as it is for professional journalists to get public records from government institutions, it can be that much harder for students who may not be taken as seriously. So we're always pleased to honor those students who stayed determined and persevered to get the records and report on them."

The awards will be presented April 16 at the SPJ chapter’s Arizona Freedom of Information Awards Reception to be held at the Heard Museum in Phoenix.