MJ-school students win Online Journalism Award for coverage of Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria

Students from the UNC School of Media and Journalism have brought home the Online News Association's 2018 David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award for their piece entitled, "Aftermath."

Past MJ-school projects to receive this award include Chiloe Stories (2004), Global Messengers (2005), South of Here (2008), Andaman Rising (2009) and Cuba's New Wave (2017).

Aftermath is an interactive project made up of five parts, each containing a written piece, 4-7 minute documentary video, 360-degree video, drone footage, photo gallery and graphics. Students gathered project assets in Puerto Rico during spring break from March 8-17, 2018.

The students' multimedia project covers the aftermath of Hurricane Maria, a devastating storm that hit Puerto Rico on Sept. 20, 2017, just two weeks after Hurricane Irma. The project lays out in detail the effects of power outages, coal pollution, weakened physical and mental health, flooding and destroyed landscapes on Puerto Ricans. It also aims to educate the public and encourage support.

View the winning project

Working as a team

The team — consisting of current and recently graduated undergraduate and graduate students — included MaryRachel Bulkeley '18, Peyton Chance '18, Danielle Chemtob '19, Matt Couch '18, Hanna Davison '18, Alexis Fairbanks '18, Kaia Findlay '19 (M.A.), Rob Gourley '19 (M.A.), Kaitlin Harlow '19, Jasmin Herrera '19, Alice Hudson '19, Connie Hanzhang Jin '19, Nathan Klima '19, Alex Kormann '19, Marissa O'Neill '18, Gabrielle Palacio '18, Aubrey Patti '19, Katie Rice '18, Elle Sommerville '18, Maria Elena Vizcaino '19, Madison Walls '18, Avery Williams '18, Darian Woehr '19, Justin Wynn '18, and Ruijia Zhang '18. Members of the coaching team included Lecturer Tamara Rice, Julian W. Scheer Term Professor Pat Davison, Lecturer Christa Gala, Teaching Associate Professor Kate Sheppard and photojournalist Chris Carmichael.

Playing a key role in this project were the students enrolled in "MEJO 557: Advanced Editing." "They reviewed text pieces for AP style, punctuation, grammar and other issues," said Andy Bechtel, associate professor of the class.

"They proofread graphics and did a test-drive of the site before it launched," added Bechtel.

Many facets of this project tie back to this kind of collaboration. From editing to videography to translation, each element of Aftermath was brought together by the hard work and dedication of those involved.

Getting the news out

Among the reporters, photographers and developers covering Puerto Rico's aftermath was Rob Gourley (pictured right), a graduate student within the MJ-school. Gourley was the lead videographer on the project and had the chance to cover the power loss on a much deeper level. He and a partner documented Tito Kayak, an activist in Puerto Rico who has taken the task of restoring power into his own hands.

Communities still in the dark, including those inaccurately marked as "restored" by the power company, are slowly but surely regaining power thanks to the help of Kayak. Gourley spent long hours capturing Kayak's work with hopes that the video would accurately represent the situation at hand.

"I was deeply grateful that Tito was willing to let us follow him and document part of his story, and I wanted to make sure that we honored his trust in us by doing his story justice," said Gourley.

He wanted to share this individual's encouraging work: winning an OJA will certainly help spread the word.

Also helping to get this story out to the public — about Tito and everyone else affected by Hurricane Maria — is Kate Sheppard, an associate professor and the senior enterprise editor at HuffPost. Sheppard pushed to get Aftermath included on the popular news site, which published five posts correlating with the five parts of the project.

"The students' work was certainly of the professional caliber I'd hoped for, and we really wanted to elevate attention to their stories," said Sheppard.

She also acknowledged that former media coverage often showed the survivors of Hurricane Maria as victims, leaving out the activists who aren't waiting for organizations' help to start rebuilding their communities.

Taking it personally

Senior Maria Vizcaino, who was born and raised in Caracas, Venezuela, wrote one of the five journalism pieces featured in Aftermath. Vizcaino, like Gourley, was able to travel to Puerto Rico and see what she was reporting on firsthand. She discovered that, despite the hurricane's damage and lack of federal funding, Puerto Ricans were not fazed.

"People were very resilient. Pretty much everyone was like 'It's fine. We're fine,' when that clearly wasn't the situation," said Vizcaino, who felt a more personal connection to the project. "I found [Puerto Rico] to be so similar to my country, I felt I was at home, and consequently felt it was my people going through the recovery process."

Vizcaino went on to say that there have been no long-term solutions proposed. Thursday, Sept. 20, marked the one-year anniversary of Hurricane Maria, but Puerto Ricans still need billions of dollars in funds to rebuild their communities.

This project is just as relevant today as it was upon submission, especially now that North Carolina is dealing with its own hurricane aftermath.

"It can be difficult to keep reporting focused on the disaster when it's been weeks or months since the direct hit, but that's also when it's most important," said Sheppard.