Cross-Campus Partners

By Gilger, Kristin | Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal, Spring 2011 | Go to article overview

Cross-Campus Partners


Gilger, Kristin, Investigative Reporters and Editors, Inc. The IRE Journal


Students from 11 colleges investigate transportation in groundbreaking project

Put 1 1 college journalists in a newsroom full time for 10 weeks. Give them a great topic, some travel money and access to some of the best minds in journalism.

What do you get?

A sweeping investigation into travel dangers in America that attracted publishing partners such as The Washington Post and msnbc.com. The project garnered more than 5 million page views and 1 .28 million unique visitors.

This was the experience of News21, a national student reporting project sponsored by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. News21 has been around for almost six years, with students at participating schools studying their chosen topics in intensive spring seminars, followed by summer reporting projects on issues ranging from homeless veterans to the way young people use technology.

But it wasn't until the summer of 2010 that the Carnegie-Knight schools came together in one place to do one major national project. They spent the summer at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, working under the direction of editors such as Leonard Downie Jr., former editor of The Washington Post, and Steve Doig, an expert in computer-assisted reporting, both of whom now work at the Cronkite School.

The result was a 23-story multimedia investigation, "Breakdown: Traveling Dangerously in America," published in September on a News21 website (http://national.news21.com) as well as in the Post, on msnbc.com and in other publications around the country.

The Center for Public Integrity, which signed on as an early partner, helped students cullthousands of documents, including transcripts from congressional testimony and NTSB hearings, reports of accident investigations, and correspondence between the National Transportation Safety Board and the agencies it oversees. They also used police reports and court documents to bolster their reporting.

The scope of the project - both in ambition and size - makes it the single largest collaboration ever undertaken between journalism schools and professional media organizations.

Digging into data

In some cases, documents were available electronically, but in other cases, students obtained paper copies. For example, two students assigned to investigate accidents related to fatigue spent many hours going through archived documents at NTSB, turning up a 1935 memo that contains the first known mention of fatigue as a concern in aviation safety. That memo is referenced in a story (http://ow.ly/4xwen) that examines this long-standing problem and how little has been done to address it. In another case, students were able to obtain a copy of a 2005 memo (http://ow.ly/4xwo7) that showed the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration was warned about the problem of "reincarnated" carriers long before the agency took steps to stop the practice.

Students reviewed 13,000 recommendations logged in an NTSB database and thousands of accident records on the websites of federal regulatory agencies, including the Federal Aviation Administration, the Coast Guard, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration and the Federal Railroad Administration. While a great deal of traffic accident data is available online, students soon found that it couldn't answer all of their questions. How many NTSB recommendations have actually been implemented over the past 43 years since the board was created? How many recommendations has the NTSB given up on? And without the raw data, students were stymied as they tried to answer another key question that their reporting led them to: How big of a role does fatigue play in accidents?

The NTSB refused requests for the additional data, saying it was too difficult and time-consuming to provide. …

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