The Elon University journalism major capitalized on his 10-week fellowship this summer, joining 30 student journalists to investigate the political divide between citizens with significant voting power and those without, particularly in disadvantaged communities.
For two weeks this summer, Elon University alumnus Max Garland ’16, a journalism major, traversed the Southeastern United States in a rental car accompanied by other News21 Fellows.
Brought together by the Carnegie-Knight News21 Initiative, widely considered one of the most prestigious student journalism programs in the country, Garland’s seven-member team sought out unreported and underreported stories for their investigation of voting access and participation in a presidential election year.
It was during those two weeks, conducting in-person interviews in Clayton, Ala., Americus, Ga., and elsewhere in the history-rich South that Garland said he came to understand the importance of his investigation, which focused on the effects of new voting legislation on African-American communities and the population’s view of the current political landscape.
“Coming into the program, I obviously knew it was a great opportunity,” said Garland. “But it didn’t really hit me – the impact in terms of our reporting and what we were able to find – until I was able to travel and interact with all of these people. Voting rights is a national issue, but people don’t realize how things can change at the local level, especially in the last two years, that can prevent people from voting or make them feel discouraged.”
Garland served as the team leader and lead writer for a News21 article titled “African-Americans in the South face new barriers to vote,” a 4,000-word story featuring several multimedia components, including three videos and five audio interviews. Garland’s team of student journalists and photographers compiled an extensive package examining the discontinuation of Section 5 of the Voting Rights Act, the significance of statewide voter ID laws, and the growing political apathy among young African-Americans. In addition to his writing contributions, Garland also built a database chronicling congressional representation in “Black Belt” states dating back to 1869.
This year as part of the 2016 News21 Initiative, 31 journalism students from 18 universities traveled to 31 states, conducted hundreds of interviews, reviewed thousands of pages of state statutes and other records, and built databases and data visualizations documenting the issues surrounding voter rights and participation. The full breadth of News21’s “Voting Wars” investigation, which also included deep dives into the voting issues facing Asian-Americans, Latinos and other minority groups, became available in mid-August.
In addition to his travels in the Southeast, Garland also flew to Los Angeles for a week to assist another News21 student team with audio equipment and news sources for a multimedia package highlighting Latino communities.
“Some of these places we went to are locations reporters have never touched. Or places that reporters just look over, to be honest,” said Garland. “There are issues in all of these communities, and what we have done is show these local community issues to a national audience.”
While they spent a good portion of the summer on the road, Garland and the 30 other Fellows were based at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University’s Phoenix campus. Despite hailing from 18 college campuses, including Elon, Louisiana State University, Syracuse University and the University of Oklahoma, the Fellows developed a quick camaraderie.
“I was blown away with how cooperative and willing to work with one another we were,” Garland said. “We were all concerned with figuring out what’s the best way to tell this story, and for that I am thankful to all of the News21 Fellows.”
Communication played a vital role during the investigation he led, Garland explained, noting that the final article included five bylined authors. “A lot of it was just making sure that we are on the same page and that everyone understood the central idea and what we are trying to find,” he said. “It came down to constant communication.”
The student journalists leaned on News21’s veteran editors Jacqueline Petchel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter, and Leonard Downie Jr., former executive editor of The Washington Post, for advice throughout the fellowship.
“Jacqueline was the guiding hand throughout this experience,” said Garland. “She really helped guide us through the story and through the editing process. She pointed out what we should tweak, what we should focus on. We knew to trust her and she gave us great advice.”
Recently hired as a business reporter for the Charleston Gazette-Mail in Charleston, W.Va., Garland explained that the instruction he received during the News21 Fellowship will stay with him as he moves into the professional world.
“I learned so much from a writing and reporting point of view,” he said. “I learned what’s important. What personal details to include. I learned the little things that can make a great impact on a story.”