The journalism major capitalized on his News21 internship opportunity this summer, joining 27 student journalists to investigate marijuana legalization.
Michael Bodley ’16 can tell you the shades of color that come at first light on the Gallatin River outside Bozeman, Montana.
While the hues – and natural beauty – will stay with him, said the Elon University journalism major, that’s not what led him this summer to Big Sky Country. No, that would be the state’s decision to scale back its medical marijuana program. The sunrise was just an added benefit of his overnight house visit with two convicted, yet hospitable, felons.
“Watching the sun rise over the Gallatin River was a surreal experience, and you don’t often get to do something like that while reporting,” Bodley said. “It’s nothing you can really plan for or expect.”
As part of “America’s Weed Rush,” an investigation of marijuana legalization sponsored by the Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative, Bodley – and a fellow News21 participant – crisscrossed Montana in the name of journalism. Widely considered one of the most prestigious student journalism programs in the United States, News21 gathered 27 participants – from 19 different universities – and spent 10 weeks examining the political and cultural divide between those who support marijuana legalization, and those who oppose it.
While the News21 Initiative was based at the Cronkite School at Arizona State University, students visited 23 states to report on marijuana legalization and the individuals and places it has affected. Bodley’s own research led him to the wooded cabin of Mark and Valerie Sigler, who are currently wrapping up five-year probation sentences for operating a medical marijuana dispensary chain in Montana.
In addition to playing a focal role in Bodley’s article, “In Montana, medical marijuana in danger as debate drags on,” the husband and wife opened up their home to the Elon student journalist, offering meals, a place to rest, and a detailed account of rifle-wielding federal agents raiding their dispensary in March 2011.
“They live in a cabin in the middle of nowhere, so we trekked out there in the woods, outside of cellphone service,” Bodley said. “We ended up talking to them for hours and really enjoyed our time with them. We were learning so much that we actually ended up cancelling our hotel room and spending the night in their cabin.”
The meeting was not by chance as Bodley fought to add Montana to News21’s extensive marijuana coverage. Why the interest? Because while 23 states, plus Washington, D.C., have eased restrictions on medical marijuana, Montana is the only one attempting to repeal its usage.
The article was one of two single byline stories Bodley wrote for the News21 program, and he co-authored three others. Since the public launch of the “America’s Weed Rush” project on Aug. 16, several of News21’s media partners have also published Bodley’s work, including The Washington Post, NBC News and The Center for Public Integrity. The Pendulum editor-in-chief also contributed significantly to the project’s blog, writing five posts and contributing to a podcast.
Bodley’s content focused primarily on the business aspects of marijuana legalization, tackling the subject with a hard look at its influence on banking and the workforce. In addition to a week in Montana, his coverage also included a stint in Las Vegas, Nevada, detailing the state’s slow rollout of its medical marijuana program.
Reporting on America’s marijuana industry was a natural progression for Bodley, who completed a business reporting internship in summer 2014 with The Baltimore Sun.
“It’s definitely fair to say that my interest in business reporting continued,” Bodley said. “It really helped to have that background and have a working knowledge of business reporting going into the News21 program. It allowed me to carve out a set of unique stories that I was well positioned to cover.”
With 27 aspiring journalists sharing a single newsroom, the enthusiasm for the work – especially in the first few weeks – was palpable. “In the early days of the newsroom, there is just so much energy,” Bodley said. “The place is just crackling with energy.”
With meetings and phone calls often interrupted with shouts across the room, the atmosphere could be “chaotic,” but a level of camaraderie was also built. Students shared sources and provided leads to help one another move their individual projects forward.
Several news veterans, including Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, and Jacqueline Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter and editor, supervised News21’s coverage and journalism team.
“To report under such incredible editors was a privilege,” Bodley said. “Working under that kind of talented leadership and being able to learn under the best in the business immensely improved my reporting ability.”
Between the renowned editors and News21’s track record of quality work, the bar for excellence is set understandably high, Bodley said. “It challenged you to make a story that you thought was good and make it something better, maybe even something that could be great,” he said, noting the great lengths editors went to assist the reporters’ development. “How can you not improve as a writer in that situation?”
In fact, Bodley thought so much of the experience he saved a printed copy of Downie’s handwritten edits as a memento.
He was equally appreciative of Petchel, whom he worked directly with on the Montana article. Admittedly “swamped” with other work when he proposed the topic, Bodley’s research kept leading him back to the state’s attempts to repeal or suppress its legalized marijuana law. After persistent pressing and fact-finding, Bodley built the Montana topic from an afterthought, to a sidebar, to a full-blown feature.
“To be fair, I probably had no business looking into another story,” Bodley said. “But when I found this, I realized that we really needed to cover it. With more and more research, Jacquee Petchel saw that as well and supported it 100 percent.”
Bodley expressed gratitude for the chance to immerse himself in an investigative journalism topic, a journey that begin in January 2015 with News21’s video-conferenced seminars. With four-plus months of preparation leading into the program’s official kickoff, Bodley was well versed in topics surrounding marijuana and could focus on building sources, cultivating relationships, and asking smart, pointed questions.
“When it comes to marijuana, there is still a close-knit community,” he said. “You really have to, with every single person you are talking to, ask, ‘Who else should I talk to? Where else should I go? What am I missing?’ It’s questions like that which really allow you to build your source network out and find individuals and stories that have not been covered before.”