Gun rights in America: News21 students investigate

August 18, 2014

In the aftermath of the Newtown school shootings and the ongoing congressional stalemate over federal gun legislation, students from 16 universities across the country have contributed to a major investigation into the polarizing issues of gun rights and regulation in America.

Working as part of the Carnegie-Knight News21 program, a national multi-university reporting initiative headquartered at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University, the students analyzed gun laws in all 50 states in order to compile the most comprehensive database on gun-related deaths among children in America. woman posing with hand gun Download Full Image

The News21 investigation includes dozens of multimedia stories, videos, databases and photo galleries examining the issue from both sides of the divide. Students traveled to more than 28 states, interviewing hundreds of individuals and sharing their stories.

Media partners

This year’s initiative includes an unprecedented number of media partners expected to publish portions of the project. More than 60 organizations, including The Washington Post, NBC News, USA Today and Scripps Howard News Service, have signed on as partners.

The project was led by a team of award-winning journalists, including four Pulitzer Prize winners: News21 executive editor Jacquee Petchel, former investigative journalist at The Miami Herald and Houston Chronicle; Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post and Weil Family Professor of Journalism; Peter Bhatia, former top editor at The Oregonian newspaper and the current Edith Kinney Gaylord Visiting Professor in Journalism Ethics; and Steve Doig, the Knight Chair in Journalism.

“Our students have done an extraordinary job investigating one of the most polarizing issues in the country,” Petchel said. “They received remarkable access to people and communities across the nation to show what forms people’s beliefs and cultural perspectives on guns.”

Work on the project started in January with a video-conference seminar on gun issues taught by Downie. The seminar included special guest speakers such as Bob Woodward and Jeff Leen of The Washington Post.

In May, the students participated in an intensive 10-week investigative reporting fellowship based out of a Cronkite School newsroom on the ASU Downtown Phoenix campus. Students traversed the country in multimedia reporting teams, interviewing gun advocates and proponents in both urban and rural areas. Downie said they worked hard to objectively cover both sides of the issue.

“This is not a pro-gun or anti-gun project,” Downie said. “This is a project that explores the conflicts going on right now in the United States. We wanted to represent all views, interests and cultures.”

Petchel said this year’s project is multimedia-driven, with a remarkable number of photos, videos and interactive databases. Like previous years, students also developed in-depth stories on a range of topics, including state responses to mass shootings and America’s hunting culture.

“News21 has allowed me to work with magnificent editors, as well as peers around the country that I'm sure I'll have contact with for the rest of my life,” Cronkite School student Alex Lancial said. “Making those connections is extremely helpful for a career in journalism. News21 has developed my investigative, multimedia, design and collaborative skills, shaping me into a better reporter.”

Journalism in the digital age

News21 was established by the Carnegie Corporation of New York and the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. It is also supported by the Miami Foundation, the Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation, the Hearst Foundations, the Donald W. Reynolds Foundation, the Peter Kiewit Foundation and Louis A. “Chip” Weil.

The program is designed to give students experience producing 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 post-9/11 veterans, voting rights, food safety and transportation safety in America.

Fellows from the 2014 project came from ASU, Elon University, George Washington University, Hofstra University, Kent State University, Marquette University, Syracuse University, Texas Christian University, University of British Columbia, University of Florida, University of Maryland, University of Nebraska, University of Oklahoma, University of Oregon, University of Tennessee and University of Texas.

Individual students were funded by their universities and by several foundations. This year’s Ethics and Excellence in Journalism Foundation Fellows were ASU students Alex Lancial, Lauren Loftus and Erin Patrick O’Connor, and University of Oklahoma students Carmen Forman, Amy Slanchik and Sydney Stavinoha.

Hearst Foundations Fellows were ASU students Jessica Boehm, Emilie Eaton and Brittany Elena Morris.

The Peter Kiewit Foundation of Omaha, Nebraska, provided funding for University of Nebraska students Robby Korth, Jacy Marmaduke and Morgan Spiehs.

The Donald W. Reynolds Foundation supported ASU student Kristen Hwang, and ASU student Jon LaFlamme was the Weil Fellow.

The complete list of the 2014 News21 fellows:

Arizona State University: Jessica Boehm, Emilie Eaton, Kristen Hwang, Jon LaFlamme, Alex Lancial, Lauren Loftus, Brittany Elena Morris and Erin Patrick O’Connor

Elon University: Kate Murphy

George Washington University: Sarah Ferris

Hofstra University: Claudia Balthazar

Kent State University: Jacob Byk

Marquette University: Aaron Maybin

Syracuse University: Jim Tuttle

Texas Christian University: Jordan Rubio

University of British Columbia: Allison Griner

University of Florida: Wade Millward

University of Maryland: Marlena Chertock and Justine McDaniel

University of Nebraska: Robby Korth, Jacy Marmaduke and Morgan Spiehs

University of Oklahoma: Carmen Forman, Amy Slanchik and Sydney Stavinoha

University of Oregon: Sam Stites

University of Tennessee: Jacqueline DelPilar

University of Texas: Kelsey Jukam and Natalie Krebs

Reporter , ASU Now


Change in critical grasslands diminishing cattle production

August 18, 2014

Half of the Earth’s land mass is made up of rangelands, which include grasslands and savannas, yet they are being transformed at an alarming rate. Woody plants, such as trees and shrubs, are moving in and taking over, leading to a loss of critical habitat and causing a drastic change in the ability of ecosystems to produce food – specifically meat.

Researchers with Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences led an investigation that quantified this loss in both the United States and Argentina. The study’s results are published in today’s online issue of the scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. trees and shrubs and grasslands Download Full Image

“While the phenomenon of woody plant invasion has been occurring for decades, for the first time, we have quantified the losses in ecosystem services,” said Osvaldo Sala, Julie A. Wrigley Chair and Foundation Professor with ASU’s School of Life Sciences and School of Sustainability. “We found that an increase in tree and shrub cover of 1 percent leads to a 2 percent loss in livestock production.” And, woody-plant cover in North America increases at a rate between 0.5 and 2 percent per year.

In recent years, the U.S. government shelled out millions of dollars in an effort to stop the advance of trees and shrubs. The U.S. Natural Resources Conservation Service spent $127 million from 2005-2009 on herbicides and brush management, without a clear understanding of its economic benefit.

The research team used census data from the U.S. and Argentina to find out how much livestock exists within the majority of the countries’ rangelands. In both countries, the team studied swaths of rangeland roughly the size of Texas – approximately 160 million acres each. These lands support roughly 40 million heads of cattle.

Researchers also used remote sensors to calculate the production of grasses and shrubs. And, to account for the effects of different socioeconomic factors, researchers quantified the impact of tree cover on livestock production in two areas of the world that have similar environments, but different levels of economic development.

Surprisingly, the presence of trees explained a larger fraction of livestock production in Argentina than in the United States.

“What’s happening in Argentina seems to be a much narrower utilization of rangelands,” added Sala. “The land there is mostly privately-owned and people who have ranches are producing predominantly meat to make a profit. But in the U.S., many people who own ranches don’t actually raise cattle. They are using the land for many other different purposes.”

While ranchers clearly depend on grasslands to support healthy livestock, ecosystems also provide a range of other services to humans. Stakeholders such as conservationists, farmers, builders, government entities and private landowners depend on the land for a variety of reasons, and each has different values and land use needs.

Why are trees and shrubs taking over grasslands?

There are several hypotheses as to why woody plant encroachment is happening. Fire reduction, grazing intensity, climate change and increased carbon dioxide in the atmosphere are some widely-held beliefs as to the cause. However, Sala’s study is focused not on the cause, but rather on the cost of this change to people.

“For each piece of land, there are different people who have an interest in that land, and they all have different values. And, they are all okay,” said Sala. “However, in order to negotiate how to use the land and to meet the needs of these different stakeholders, we need concrete information. We now know how much increase in tree cover is affecting the cattle ranchers.”

Sala and his colleagues hope their study will be used to inform discussions as policymakers and other stakeholders negotiate changes in land use. Researchers who took part in the study include Sala and Billie Turner II, with ASU; José Anadón, with City University of New York; and Elena Bennett, with McGill University. National Academies Keck Futures Initiative and the U.S. National Science Foundation funded the study.

ASU’s School of Life Sciences is an academic unit of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

Sandra Leander

Manager, Media Relations and Marketing, School of Life Sciences