Student journalists to take over Arizona airwaves

A 28-minute investigative report on the heroin epidemic in Arizona, produced by students at Arizona State University, will run Tuesday night on every broadcast TV station and more than 90 radio stations throughout the state.

The investigation, "Hooked: Tracking Heroin's Hold on Arizona," was a collaborative effort by 70 students and eight faculty members at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. It documents Maricopa County's status as one of the epicenters of the state's heroin crisis. It will air at 6:30 p.m. MST.

The idea for the report came from Art Brooks, president of the Arizona Broadcasters Association and a member of the Cronkite Endowment Board of Trustees, said Christopher Callahan, the school's founding dean, in an email to Poynter. After a board meeting, Brooks told Callahan that heroin was a scourge on the state and convinced him to rally the students and faculty around the story.

From there, Brooks started persuading Arizona's broadcasting community — some 33 television stations and upwards of 90 radio stations — to air the half-hour commercial-free report.

He convened a meeting between general managers from Phoenix TV stations and representatives from law enforcement agencies. To air the report, many stations would have to interrupt local news broadcasts and other programming just before prime time. There was precedent, however, Brooks said. In 2008, broadcasters in Arizona all agreed to run a special investigative report called "Crystal Darkness," which explored the dangers of crystal meth.

“I never thought we could pull that off again, quite frankly,” Brooks said.

After some consideration, broadcasters from Phoenix, Yuma and Tucson agreed. Meanwhile, during the fall semester, students and faculty at Arizona State were producing the report.

To cover the story, the school mobilized students in what Callahan calls a "flood-the-zone" approach. At the helm of the project was Jacquee Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and ASU professor. She and assistant dean Mark Lodato led one group of students, while professor and data whiz Steve Doig helped another group run the numbers on heroin use in Arizona. Meanwhile, Steve Elliott, director of digital news, led a group of students that produced about 20 stories for a separate website that will be released when the report airs.

Also contributing to the project were Arizona State University professors Peter Bhatia, Retha Hill and Fran Matera, who helped edit, present and promote the project, respectively.

During the broadcast, audience members affected by heroin use will be able to call a toll-free number that connects to a call center staffed by professional counselors at the Cronkite School.

Petchel, who directs News21, the school's in-depth reporting initiative, says the project was similar to others they've produced on topics of gun violence, veterans issues and voting. Because it was a televised production, however, it required refined production skills to prepare for the airwaves. Students had to travel all over the state and interview addicts, families and law enforcement officials.

"But at their core, both programs reach the same goal: Inspire students to do their best work for the good of the audience and for their own future going forward," Petchel told Poynter in an email interview.

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    Benjamin Mullin

    Benjamin Mullin is the managing editor of Poynter.org. He previously reported for Poynter as a staff writer, Google Journalism Fellow and Naughton Fellow, covering journalism innovation, business practices and ethics.

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