By Leonard Downie Jr.
Weil Family Professor of Journalism, Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
The News21 national investigation of voting rights in the U. S., which was launched August 12 on its own website, votingrights.news21.com, and in news media around the country, began early this year with a video-conferenced spring semester research seminar operating out of Arizona State University’s Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. Selected student journalists at the Cronkite School and 10 other universities – Syracuse, Harvard, Maryland, North Carolina, Elon, Florida, Texas, Oklahoma, Nebraska and Oregon – interviewed national experts and advocates and researched voting rights issues in their regions. Working with the Cronkite faculty, they developed a budget of prospective stories, databases, interactive graphics, photos and videos.
Twenty-four student journalists from the 11 universities then gathered in the News21 newsroom at the Cronkite School for 10 weeks of intensive reporting, writing and multimedia and website development, with funding from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, the Carnegie Corporation, Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, Hearst Foundation and the Cronkite School. During the spring semester seminar and summer newsroom experience, the student reporters traveled to more than 40 cities, 21 states and one U. S. territory, conducted more than 1,000 interviews and reviewed 5,000 documents.
They interviewed state legislators who wrote and passed voter identification laws, along with prospective voters – especially minorities, the elderly, disabled and college students – who could be affected by those laws in states throughout the country. They found felons who had served their time and wanted to vote again but weren’t able to in many states. They profiled a national group of aggressive poll watchers. They documented a growing trend, mostly in western states, of voting by mail rather than in person at polling places on election day. Most ambitiously, they queried officials and made public records requests in all 50 states to create and analyze the most comprehensive database of reported cases of election fraud in the U. S. from 2000 to now.
Some students focused on their strongest skills– on-scene reporting, in-depth interviewing, records requests and database building, story conception and writing, photography and videography. But they nearly all did something of everything, working cooperatively in ever-shifting teams to complete the project in time for launching in August, before the political conventions. They had been selected – and evaluated during the spring semester seminar – for their journalistic abilities, multimedia skills and readiness to become impartial experts about a complicated, highly charged subject in a polarized election year. They were supervised and edited by visiting editors and professional print and digital journalists on the Cronkite School faculty and staff.
The student journalists’ stories, multimedia and databases were offered to a number of commercial and nonprofit news media publishing partners in what has become a growing collaboration in this third year of annual Carnegie-Knight News21 investigative reporting projects. They have already been published and posted online by The Washington Post, nbcnews.com, the Philadelphia Inquirer, the Center for Public Integrity, the Florida Center for Investigative Reporting, nonprofit news site members of the Investigative News Network and New American Media, and other newspapers and websites. More about how the project was done and who worked on it can be found on its website in “About the Voting Rights Project” and “Exhaustive Database of Voter Fraud Cases Turns Up Scant Evidence That It Happens”.