Darien student wins state press award for investigative reporting
An interesting news tip, several interviews and a month worth of research and writing resulted in one Darien High School student receiving the Outstanding Investigative Reporting Award.
But the accolades didn't stop there.
McKinley Stauffer is a junior at DHS, and when she first got involved with the school newspaper, she thought she would be doing more editorial writing.
"I've always loved to write and I was involved with a newspaper in middle school," Stauffer said. "Investigative journalism is my favorite but I thought I would do more editorials until I got pushed toward investigative reporting."
Stauffer was recently named the 2011 Connecticut Journalist of the Year by the Journalism Education Association. She was also nominated for an award for a story she did on spice -- a synthetic marijuana compound that was legal in the state until December.
Although Stauffer said it's an honor to win the awards, she doesn't write stories with the intent of winning anything.
"It's more important to have other people in town know what's going on and to draw attention to things in town," Stauffer said. "I also like the recognition my peers get for the work we do on the paper."
This year marks Stauffer's second year with the paper and she said she is currently being groomed to take over as an editor for her senior year. However, beyond high school, Stauffer isn't sure if she'll continue to pursue a journalism career.
"I don't know for sure what I want to do," Stauffer said. "Journalism is definitely high on the list but regardless, I'll probably be doing something in the English [field]."
Besides the investigative piece on the synthetic marijuana compound, Stauffer also published a story about the police tip line that was being used to target junior and senior girls.
After the idea for the story was brought to her teacher, Stauffer began looking for sources when she found out about a girl who had been targeted as a result of the tip line.
"I interviewed the girl and found out that people were treating the tip line like a joke and using it to play pranks," Stauffer said.
From there, Stauffer approached the police who told her students and officers would meet to discuss any problems kids were having in town and to form a more positive relationship between the police and youths. Stauffer said she found out the police weren't taking the tip line as seriously because of all the fake tips they were receiving.
"I wondered why people were using the tip line as a prank," Stauffer said.
The story took Stauffer a month to finish by the time she had conducted all of her interviews and did further research on the topic.
"Most of my stories take a month to do because of the research," Stauffer said. "I don't have as strict deadlines with my stories because I have to take more time to make sure everything is accurate."
Even though she is an award-winning student journalist, Stauffer acknowledged a portion of her success is due to DHS Principal Dan Haron's willingness to allow the newspaper to publish controversial pieces.
"It's really nice because Mr. Haron is really lenient about what we publish as long as the stories aren't hurting anyone," Stauffer said.
High school newspapers usually do not enjoy the same freedom of the press rights as public colleges and professional media outlets.
After Stauffer's story about spice was published she said the school was contacted by poison control because they didn't have any information on the compound and wanted to post the article on their website.
Stauffer said she will continue to pursue investigative pieces and attributed her passion and success as a reporter to her former journalism teacher, Stacey Wilkins.
"She has been my mentor and she is the reason why I have gone as far as I have because she helped me all along the way," Stauffer said.