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Pulitzer Fellows Deliver Provocative Projects

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UPOEG community leader and political activist Miguel Angel Jiménez Blanco collects voters’ testimonies of alleged vote-buying and coercion in San Marcos, Guerrero in June. Image by Kara Andrade. Mexico, 2015.

American University School of Communication (AU SOC) Ph.D. student Kara Andrade and Julia Boccagno, (SOC/BA ’15) have completed impressive multimedia packages developed through original investigative work in Mexico and Thailand. The murder of one of Andrade’s sources shortly after she left Mexico makes her work all the more valuable and poignant.

The two women were selected in spring 2015 by AU and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for international reporting fellowships to support projects of their choice involving an underreported systemic issue.

Mexico: Technology, Civic Participation, and Accountability

Andrade’s reporting project investigated the use of information and communication technologies in Mexico to advance transparency, activism, and citizen reporting. As part of her research, she spent 35 days in Mexico where she reported on community organizers and technology’s role in the escalating drug war.

Andrade spent a lot of time with community leader and political activist Miquel Ángel Jiménez Blanco. Jiménez was the organizer for a community self-defense group called the Union of Peoples and Organizations of Guerrero State. He used social media to organize against political corruption in Mexico. Andrade accompanied Jiménez on a dangerous 15-hour ride along to Acapulco and San Marcos, Guerrero.

A couple weeks after she returned to the United States, Andrade learned that Jiménez had been murdered. Her story Life and Death aired on NPR and ran in the Huffington Post.

“The story is about his work,” Andrade said. “There is nothing like hearing from your source hour, after hour, after hour. I told him if you let me ride along and see your work, I will make sure people see your work.”

Andrade hopes to continue to do profiles on different types of organizers throughout Latin America.

Opening the Stage Curtain: The Trans Experience in Thailand

Recent SOC graduate Julia Boccagno examined the transgender experience in Thailand. Boccagno reported on how the construct of gender changes across borders and cultures.

“The whole process started about two years ago,” Boccagno said. “I started contacting journalists on the ground in Thailand. I was trying to find out what was not being reported.”

Boccagno traveled to Bangkok, Thailand for a month where she explored the transgender community from an interdisciplinary angle. She found that although in some ways, Thailand appears accepting of transgender people, they are ostracized from the mainstream society and denied basic legal protections.

“Once you start digging deep and start asking questions, you find out there is so much inequality. It’s almost as if Thai people don’t know how to deal with someone who is different.”

Boccagno said it was an extremely difficult project to undergo. She didn’t speak much of the language, and said Thai people are very non-confrontational. She had to find a balance between the ethical values of journalism and pushing to get the answers she wanted. She spoke to everybody she possibly could to find out the truth.

“I have always dreamed of becoming a foreign correspondent and this was the perfect combination of both of my passions,” she said of her fellowship. “To be able to say I composed this multimedia project… I don’t think a lot of people can say that right out of college. This experience helped me learn how to work independently, and put myself in situations where I felt uncomfortable.”

Boccagno is now a News Associate for CBS where she does a lot of producing for the morning news show. She hopes to apply for more grants in the future so she can continue investigating stories that are not being reported, “I want to be a storyteller and find the regular people who have daily struggles but aren’t being discussed.”

"[Andrade and Boccagno] threw themselves into their projects and went above and beyond,” said Kem Sawyer, Contributing Editor to the Pulitzer Center. “I've very much enjoyed getting to know them. They are both super energetic, thorough, and detail-oriented."

The Pulitzer Fellowship application for 2016 is now available and open to any AU student looking to investigate an underreported systemic issue. The application can be found on the Pulitzer Center website or through SOC Professor Bill Gentile.