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'The Wounds Of Whiteclay' Journalists Win Prestigious RFK Award


It's that time of year, graduation season. And there are many stories, including on our programs, about young people, about advice to young people and so on. Now, here's a story that flips that script. A journalism project by students at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln just won the prestigious Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award's grand prize. Matt Hanson, a senior, was the data reporter for the project.

MATT HANSON: I got a text from one of our professors saying we just won, and, you know, my mouth just dropped.

MARTIN: It's the first time in the RFK Awards' nearly 50-year history that an entry from college journalists won the grand prize. To achieve that means they bested contributions from The New Yorker and National Geographic and HBO among others.

HANSON: I was sitting with my dad at the kitchen table, and I was, like, well, dad, I guess that we just beat HBO.

MARTIN: The winning series focused on the small Nebraska town of Whiteclay. And town seems a rather loose description. There are only 12 residents. But there are four beer stores, and most of the customers come over the South Dakota border from the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Alcohol has been banned on the reservation since 1889. Chris Bowling, a junior, was one of the reporters who spent a lot of time in Whiteclay and Pine Ridge for his reporting.

CHRIS BOWLING: Last, like, May, we kind of got the loose idea that we were going to be working on stories in Whiteclay and in Pine Ridge. And so we just kind of started reading and researching and kind of identified a few different topics that we really wanted to tackle, whether it was infant mortality or fetal alcohol syndrome.

MARTIN: The students zeroed in on the connection they saw between the liquor stores in Whiteclay and the disturbing social conditions in Pine Ridge. Hanson was the one looking at the numbers.

HANSON: I believe in 2009, the state of Nebraska mandated that the liquor stores in Whiteclay had to publish public data sheets at the end of each year detailing how many beer cans had been sold.

MARTIN: And how many cans of beer was that?

HANSON: You know, it quickly tallied up to, you know, 42 million over 10 years, I believe.

MARTIN: And most of those cans of beer went to residents of Pine Ridge. Meanwhile, Chris Bowling and the other student journalists were reporting on conditions in Pine Ridge - rates of alcoholism, suicide, infant mortality and crime that are well above national averages, not to mention public drunkenness in Whiteclay.

BOWLING: You hear it a lot of the time, but really, if you get out of your car and you kind of walk around, I mean, you see people that are just laying, you know, hungover or drunk on the street. You are liable to step on, like, a catheter bag, or you could walk around a corner and see some people sleeping in a car.

It's just really kind of an unbelievable situation to think that it's happening up there in Nebraska. Once we started digging deeper, we really didn't turn our eyes away from it.

MARTIN: The students said the owners of the beer stores in Whiteclay had little to say to them.

BOWLING: We did have several reporters, like, walk in and try to talk to them. And most of them were sent away immediately. Some were kept around for off-the-record kind of questions. But yeah, any time we tried calling them or going in, we were just kind of sent away.

MARTIN: Last month in Nebraska, Liquor Control Commission voted unanimously to revoke the liquor licenses for all four of the stores in Whiteclay. Activists say that was due, in part, to the students' extensive reporting.

HANSON: We had something like 20 stories that we published over the course of a year all focusing on this issue. And most of those were over 1,500 words and featured photo, video, graphics.

MARTIN: All that work paid off with the first ever RFK Journalism grand prize for a student project. But the students told us perhaps something more.

BOWLING: It's kind of, you know, going to leave an imprint on our hearts and, like, souls, you know, for a very long time, you know, in journalism and just in life.

MARTIN: That was Chris Bowling And Matt Hanson, two of the 11 University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students to win the grand prize for the Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Awards. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.