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Cronkite's Howard Center Takes Top Prize in National SPJ Competition

June 22, 2021

By Kasey Brammell

The Howard Center for Investigative Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication beat out thousands of entries to win the top collegiate prize presented annually by the Society of Professional Journalists for its 2020 investigation “Operation Agent Touch.”

In addition to the Howard Center’s “Best of Show” prize, Cronkite students won 16 other SPJ awards.

The Howard Center’s winning project revealed how agents of ICE’s Homeland Security Investigations unit engaged in sex acts with women they thought could be victims of sex-trafficking, torpedoing a major undercover operation in Western Arizona.

Nine Cronkite students spent nearly five months working on the investigation under the supervision of Maud Beelman, executive editor of the Howard Center, and Lauren Mucciolo, the Howard Center’s executive producer.

The students obtained more than 2,100 pages of police reports, photos and video as well as HSI and court records and interviewed more than 40 police policy experts, sex-trafficking researchers, law enforcement professionals and attorneys. Among their findings was that the agents’ actions were not expressly prohibited by government policy.

The Howard Center report, which ran in professional media outlets nationwide, first won SPJ’s regional Mark of Excellence award in a competition among journalism programs in Arizona, California, Guam, Hawaii, Nevada and the Northern Mariana Islands. It then won a national SPJ award in its category, before being named the “Best of Show.” That coveted prize recognizes the single best work of student journalism in the country.

National judges applauded the Howard Center investigation for having a strong narrative, evidence to back allegations and reliable primary sources.

“To have our students’ work selected as ‘Best in Show’ from among thousands of student journalists in the country is a tremendous honor,” said Beelman. “But the fact that their investigation was interrupted by the COVID-19 shutdown, and they didn’t allow that to derail their reporting, is the true testament to our students’ talent and dedication.”

Other award-winning stories by Cronkite students focused largely on the pandemic, hardships in Panama, adversity in sports and revealing injustices within law enforcement.

Regional winners competed against other top collegiate journalism projects from the 12 other regions across the nation and received five Mark of Excellence awards — performing the best both regionally and nationally out of more than 3,100 other entries.

“Considering 2020 was a pandemic year, this was a great year for Cronkite students in this prestigious contest,” said Maureen West, an editor-in-residence for the Cronkite School.

Here is a list of Cronkite’s national first place winners:

Feature Photography (Large) 10,000+ Students
Capturing and documenting trauma in Panama - by Nicole Neri

Radio News Reporting
Phoenix area restaurants survival - by Caitlynn McDaniel

Television Sports Reporting
Skating through adversity - by Michael Gutnick

Online In-Depth Reporting
Panama - where the world waits at America’s door - by Calah Schlabach, Nino Abdaladze, Daja Henry, Anthony J. Wallace

Online News Reporting
Operation Agent Touch- by Staff of Howard Center for Investigative Journalism

About the Howard Center:
The Howard Centers at Arizona State University and the University of Maryland are funded by the Scripps Howard Foundation to advance deeply researched watchdog journalism and train the next generation of investigative reporters. They were established in 2019 to honor the legacy of Roy W. Howard, the former chairman of the Scripps-Howard newspaper chain and a pioneering news reporter.

About SPJ:
SPJ is the nation’s most broad-based journalism organization, dedicated to encouraging the free practice of journalism and stimulating high standards of ethical behavior. Founded in 1909 as Sigma Delta Chi, it has nearly 10,000 members.