UNL students win prestigious journalism award for a series of articles published in Journal Star | Education

What’s it like being black in Lincoln?

Former University of Nebraska-Lincoln professor Joe Starita said it was a loaded question, mingled with beauty and pain.

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“To be Black in Lincoln is to live a much more complex life – a life in which you have to deal with stereotypes. You have to face racism,” Starita said. “Sometimes you have to prove you’re something you’re not when maybe other people don’t have to.”

The now-retired instructor’s Spring 2021 Depth Report class was honored with a Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights Book and Journalism Award for his “Being Black in Lincoln” series.

Articles appeared in the Lincoln Journal Star in the summer of 2021 – a year after the death of George Floyd sparked protests and discussions about racial justice.

Starita’s class of 12 spent the entire semester interviewing members of the black community from various professions and backgrounds, hoping to paint a deeply dynamic and inclusive picture of the minority experience in Nebraska’s capital.

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“One of the essential goals of good journalism is to hold up a mirror to the community and let them see themselves in that mirror,” Starita said. “The main goal of this project was to show a predominantly white community what Lincoln looks like if you have much darker skin.”

Starita said this group was the youngest and most diverse depth reporting class, including Star Journal interns Nick McConnell from Lincoln and Evelyn Mejia from Norfolk. Six of the students were freshmen.

Each student focused on one individual. Some were educators, others activists. All, Starita said, offered a diverse perspective that would serve Lincoln. The students’ hard work eventually earned them one of the nation’s most prestigious journalism awards.

Assistant professor Jennifer Sheppard, along with editing assistant Roger Holmes, helped lead the class during the semester. Sheppard said the students shared meaningful stories and often tears of the time they spent talking with their subjects.

The content touched everyone involved, Sheppard said, even though it was made entirely on Zoom. Despite their physical distance, she was still able to see the students grow.

“In the end, I think they all believed in themselves,” Sheppard said. “It’s just the power of what good journalism can do; not only for the community, but for the writers.

Lincoln’s Jaqueline Martinez took Depth Reporting her junior year after writing an essay to apply for the class, an entry requirement for all students. The publicity and public relations specialist said she didn’t expect her story to have such an impact.

“When we found out about the award, I think we were all really shocked, but also moved, knowing how much we were able to reach a much larger audience than we initially thought,” Martinez said.

Martinez said the project has so many important lessons, but she hopes the set of stories informed Lincoln residents to better listen to and learn from members of her community.

“There’s so much more to a person than just how they look,” she said.

This is the second time in five years that an in-depth reporting project from UNL’s College of Journalism and Mass Communication has received a Kennedy Award.

In 2017, a UNL team won the College Journalism Award and Grand Prize for “The Wounds of Whiteclay: Nebraska’s Shameful Legacy.”

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