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National Voting Rights Project Wins SPJ First Amendment Award

May 19, 2013

The Society of Professional Journalists presented a special First Amendment Award to the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University for a national multimedia investigative reporting project on voter rights and voting fraud.

The project was produced by 24 students from 11 universities who worked out of the Cronkite School last summer as part of News21, a national student reporting project supported by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation of New York. Other support comes from the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation and Women & Philanthropy, part of ASU’s Foundation for a New American University.

The award was presented at a ceremony Saturday in Phoenix that recognized the best journalism in Arizona. More than 100 journalists accepted awards from the Arizona Press Club and SPJ’s Valley of the Sun Chapter in categories ranging from photography and design to reporting and headline writing.

In addition to News21, First Amendment Awards, which recognize published or broadcast work in 2012 that involved significant reliance on public records and open meetings, were presented to Bob Ortega and Karina Bland of The Arizona Republic and Carol Ann Alaimo of the Arizona Daily Star for their reports on the price of prisons, domestic violence deaths and legal costs incurred by Pima Community College, respectively.

In awarding the prize to News21, judges said, “The team of student reporters took on the unprecedented task of gathering, organizing and analyzing all reported cases of election fraud in the United States since 2000. … Over the course of this seven-month investigation, the News21 team sent out more than 2,000 public-records requests … and reviewed nearly 5,000 court documents, official records and media reporters. They then built a database that comprises the most extensive collection of U.S. election fraud cases ever compiled.”

The student reporters concluded that election fraud at the polls is exceedingly rare. They found only 10 cases of voter impersonation out of 2,068 alleged election fraud cases they compiled and analyzed.

Cronkite Associate Dean Kristin Gilger, who oversees the national News21 program, accepted the award on behalf of the school. “It means a lot to us and to all of the students who participated in this project to receive this award,” she said afterward. “Producing this project gave students an unprecedented experience in accountability reporting, and we think it helped change the conversation about voter fraud in America. It made a difference.”

Students in the News21 program, who are nominated and supported by their journalism schools, produce in-depth news coverage on critical issues facing the nation, using innovative digital methods to distribute the content on multiple platforms. Previous projects have included investigations into food safety and transportation safety in America.

Students begin with a spring seminar, taught by Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Cronkite’s Weil Family Professor of Journalism, during which they research and study the selected topic. They then spend 10 weeks at the Cronkite School reporting and producing their stories under the direction of News21 Executive Editor Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and former senior editor for investigations and enterprise at The Houston Chronicle.

The student work is presented on the Web and distributed nationally by media partners that include The Washington Post, nbcnews.com and the Center for Public Integrity.

The 2013 project, which is underway, focuses on post-9/11 veterans who are facing significant challenges as they return to the states.

The Knight Foundation and the Carnegie Corporation have provided millions of dollars in funding for News21 since the program's inception in 2005. The Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation provides funding for six students each year from the Cronkite School and the University of Oklahoma's Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication to participate in News21. The Hearst Foundations' gift provides support for additional students.