The News21 “Back Home” project focuses on the more than 2.6 million veterans who have returned from the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq to a country largely unprepared to meet their needs and a government that has failed on multiple levels to fulfill its promises.
It was produced by students at ASU working with students from other universities who are part of the national Carnegie-Knight News21 program, working under the direction of a team of editors led by Jacquee Petchel, executive editor of the Carnegie-Knight N21 program at the Cronkite School, and Leonard Downie Jr., Cronkite professor and former editor of The Washington Post. Students first participated in a seminar on veterans issues taught by Downie, then moved into a summer fellowship program at Cronkite – 10 weeks of intensive reporting, producing and Web development.
In documenting an array of problems and telling the stories of vets, students tried to test the limits of digital storytelling, mindful that readers and viewers access and respond to information in different ways. They felt that accessibility, interactivity, use of multimedia and presentation were especially important because the project is so data-heavy. (Students reviewed thousands of public records and government reports and sent out hundreds of public records requests.)
The final project, published Aug. 24, 2013, included 26 stories, 12 videos, 13 interactive graphics, 26 photo galleries, a 23-minute documentary and a news game that puts users in the shoes of veterans and takes them through a series of choices as they re-enter civilian life. Data was handled in a variety of ways, from a graphic that allows users to get veteran suicide data by state as well as download the data to a bar-chart type of graphic that lets a user slice disability claim data in very specific ways to get the information he or she wants. Other graphics allow users to place themselves in a demographic breakdown of veterans across the country and examine unemployment statistics.
The student journalists did all their own reporting and writing as well as creating and producing all the videos and photos on the site. Every team of reporters was sent out with video and audio equipment and was expected to produce multimedia with their stories. In addition, the 23-minute documentary is entirely the work of two students, and students designed the website and do much of the programming, including the programming behind the home page and the female veterans’ page, which use the “snowfall” design/interface method. Students also conceptualized and did the reporting for the interactive graphics and the news game, which was developed by the Cronkite School’s New Media Innovation Lab.
The website drew almost 100,000 page views, and its impact was greatly amplified due to professional media outlets that published all or part of the work.
Nearly 100 articles were reprinted by 33 different publications that included NBCnews.com, The Washington Post, the Center for Public Integrity and The Philadelphia Inquirer. When just NBCnews.com and the Center for Public Integrity Web traffic is added in, page views exceeded 660,000.
The News21 project is built on two important curricular foundations: first, that the best journalism occurs when there is a deep understanding of the subject matter to be reported on and, second, that student learning is accelerated in an immersive or “teaching hospital” environment. Students in this project tell us they gained important understanding and practice in research, storytelling, public records and data as well as how to innovate and create on the Web.