UNL project on Whiteclay wins RFK journalism grand prize

The underdogs huddled together in a 7th floor D.C. ballroom, eyes wide and cheeks flushed, trying to figure out the most acceptably Nebraska way to celebrate.


Minutes earlier, this group of University of Nebraska-Lincoln journalism students and professors had watched as a D.C. power broker announced the shocking news from the dais and hundreds of political and literary bigwigs — including at least two Kennedys and at least three members of Congress — had clapped and cheered. The group had hugged and cried and shook the hand of Ethel Kennedy, the 89-year-old widow of Bobby Kennedy, the namesake of this prestigious award.


And now some students silently stared out the Newseum ballroom’s giant picture windows toward the Capitol Building, shining brightly six blocks away. Others chattered, struggling to reconcile the project that had brought them here — the nine months they spent on the dusty, dirty, drunken main drag of Whiteclay, Nebraska — with this view, this ballroom, this night, this prize.


They stood together, blinking and wondering: What in Ethel Kennedy’s name do we do now?


Joe Starita, the group’s lead professor and a man rarely at a loss for words, barreled into the gaggle of college kids and shattered the silence.


“The first time a college has won in the 49-year history of the award!” he yelled. “We beat HBO and the New Yorker! We beat the New Yorker!”


“Don’t yell that too loud,” shushed a student.


“I don’t care,” Starita said, laughing. “This is totally insane.”


And it was. Tuesday night, these Nebraska college kids did indeed beat HBO, National Geographic, the New Yorker and every other TV network, magazine and U.S. newspaper finalist. They won the grand prize in the Robert F. Kennedy Human Rights journalism awards, an honor never before bestowed on a group of college students.