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Cronkite wins record fifth prestigious RFK award with News21 investigative report ‘State of Emergency’

June 4, 2020

RFK Award

A Carnegie-Knight News21 investigative report, "State of Emergency," won the prestigious 2020 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award. It was the fifth RFK Award the Cronkite School has won – the most of any journalism school in the country.

As part of an eight-month investigation, 37 journalism students from the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication and 18 other universities traveled to 25 states, Puerto Rico and the U.S. Virgin Islands, conducting hundreds of interviews and reviewing thousands of pages of government documents, data and state and federal statutes for “State of Emergency.”

The student journalists investigated 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.

Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist who serves as executive editor for News21, said the project is timely as earthquakes, wildfires, floods and all types of storms are occurring with more frequency.

“This deeply reported project brought to the forefront the lasting and troubling consequences of natural disasters and recovery, particularly for people living in remote, impoverished and storm-prone communities,” Petchel said. “What we found were thousands of people still coping with the aftermath, months and even years after the fact. “

A News21 analysis of Federal Emergency Management Agency data over the past two decades shows that small disasters accounted for more than 60% of all federally declared disasters between 2003 and 2018. Yet they received at least $57.8 billion less in public assistance from FEMA.

The federal government also provided less individual assistance to survivors in communities with smaller disasters. Since 1999, 651 declared disasters did not receive any individual assistance.

The News 21 “State of Emergency” project includes 15 multimedia stories, portraits of more than 50 disaster survivors, and four half-hour documentaries on hurricanes, wildfires, tornadoes and flooding. The students also produced a five-episode podcast that followed the disasters from the moment they hit through the long recovery process.

“We believe this work was not only remarkable in its scope, but also provided a national perspective on the woeful recovery efforts on the ground,” Petchel said.

The investigation was published by major media organizations around the country, including the New York Times, The Washington Post, and the Associated Press, in addition to dozens of regional and local news outlets.

Reporters found that when a natural disaster strikes a community, families lose their homes, businesses close and livelihoods are lost. The elderly and people with disabilities cannot get their medications and services. Young people suffer mental health consequences and suicide rates climb.

Molly Duerig, of Pittsburgh, Pa., one of 14 Cronkite students who participated in the project, reported on last year’s historic Midwest floods and then traveled to Puerto Rico for a story about Hurricane Maria’s lasting impact on young people. She also co-wrote an investigative story on the electric power grid in the U.S. and storms that cause power outages.

“Throughout our reporting, we constantly evaluated how to most effectively and empathetically gather the information we needed to tell the most informative, sensitive story possible of how people respond and recover from natural disasters,” Duerig said.

It was a challenge emotionally for the reporters, Duerig said, but it helped that storm victims appreciated the coverage. Two young sisters in rural Puerto Rico, for example, living in an abandoned schoolhouse, said they finally felt seen and understood.

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.

The Cronkite School received a $500 prize and a bronze bust of the late senator and U.S. attorney general.

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.

Over the past decade, News21 projects have included investigations into hate in America, voting rights, marijuana laws, drinking water quality and guns in America.

Past projects also have won national awards for enterprise and explanatory reporting.

In addition to ASU, other universities that participated in the 2019 News21 program were Appalachian State University, DePauw University, Dublin City University, Elon University, George Washington University, Hofstra University, Kent State University, Louisiana State University, St. Bonaventure University, Syracuse University, University of British Columbia, University of Colorado Boulder, University of Iowa, University of Minnesota, University of North Texas, University of Oklahoma, University of Puerto Rico and University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

In addition to Duerig, the Cronkite students who participated in the “State of Emergency” project were Allie Barton of Gilbert, Arizona; Kailey Broussard of Lafayette, Louisiana; Jordan Elder of Kansas City, Missouri; Jake Goodrick of Cleveland, Ohio; Yael Grauer of Jerusalem; Carly Henry of Las Cruces, New Mexico; Anya Magnuson of Minneapolis, Minnesota; Harrison Mantas; Ellen O’Brien of Chandler, Arizona; McKenzie Pavacich of Asbury Park, N.J.; Ariel Salk of Phoenix, Arizona; Alex Simon of Redwood City, California; and Isaac Windes of Tucson, Arizona.

Other Cronkite RFK Winners:

Students in News21 produced "Hate in America," a multimedia package of stories, a documentary and a podcast that examined acts of intolerance, racism and hate crimes across the country.

Students in an in-depth reporting class, working under the direction of Cronkite faculty members Rick Rodriquez and Jason Manning, won for "Stateless in the Dominican Republic," which examined immigration and border issues in that country.

News21 student David Kempa won for a multimedia story "Crossing Lines" about a man’s mission to help impoverished Mexicans.

Students in an in-depth reporting class won for "Divided Families," which documented the effects of families separated by the U.S.-Mexico border.

For more information, contact Maureen West at Maureen.West@asu.edu.