MILWAUKEE – Marquette University students from the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication have teamed with a reporter from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel to investigate the hazards of diacetyl and other chemicals used in the flavoring industry.
Journal Sentinel reporter Raquel Rutledge’s “Gasping for Action” told readers of the news organization’s print and online editions this weekend that, after more than a decade of studies detailing diacetyl’s danger, the federal government has failed to issue regulations specifying what a safe level of exposure might be.
The inaction means that “every day men and women across the country clock into jobs roasting and grinding coffee and mixing flavors to satisfy cravings from butterscotch candy to cheese-flavored chips – and unknowingly inhale toxic and potentially fatal fumes,” Rutledge wrote.
Diacetyl has been linked to hundreds of injuries – and at least five deaths – to men and women who worked at popcorn factories and flavoring companies in Wisconsin and other states in the last 15 years, she wrote. Yet while scientists, pulmonologists, manufacturers and trade associations know of its risks, the chemical is “being inhaled straight into the lungs” of consumers smoking e-cigarettes, she added.
Rutledge is working with several Marquette graduate and undergraduate students while spending the 2014-15 academic year at the university as part of the Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism. Winner of the 2010 Pulitzer Prize for local reporting for “Cashing In on Kids,” related to Wisconsin’s subsidized day care program, she is one of three journalists using an O’Brien Fellowship to team with journalism and communication students at the Diederich College this year.
The innovative journalism fellowship program resulted from an $8.3 million gift announced in 2013. It enables journalists to spend nine months doing world-class reporting – and to integrate Marquette students into their projects, giving them first-hand journalism experience.
Graduate students Alyssa Voboril, Shiyao Li and Sarah Hauer and undergraduates Robyn St. John and Kelly Meyerhofer are all assisting Rutledge as researchers for “Gasping for Action.” St. John traveled with Rutledge for a reporting trip to Tyler, Texas, in December. She and the other students also variously helped with, among other things, producing photos, a video voiceover and an interactive timeline.
Lori Bergen, dean of the College of Communication, thanked Rutledge and the Journal Sentinel for enabling the students to do viable researching and reporting as part of her fellowship.
“Our students have gained invaluable experience by working with a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter to produce journalism that will affect Wisconsin and beyond,” Bergen said. “Raquel’s series is another example of experiential learning. We are thrilled that it is part of the O’Brien Fellowship.”
Rutledge’s editors thanked Marquette for helping it to produce more public service journalism.
“The O’Brien Fellowship and the work of Marquette students continues to make a great difference in our newsroom,” Journal Sentinel Managing Editor George Stanley said. “The fellowship allows journalists like Raquel the time needed to dig deep into critical issues. For students, it amounts to more than a front-row seat to great journalism. It is a chance to learn alongside the best.”
Rutledge is fifth O’Brien Fellow to publish work assisted by Marquette students. The inaugural O’Brien Fellow was Meg Kissinger of the Journal Sentinel, who examined Milwaukee County’s troubled mental health system during the 2012-13 academic year. Groups of graduate and undergraduate students contributed to her series, “Chronic Crisis: A System That Doesn’t Heal.” Kissinger’s efforts earned a George A. Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors.
Three journalists teamed with Marquette students during 2013-14. Journal Sentinel reporter Dan Egan’s “A Watershed Moment: Great Lakes at a Crossroads” focused on the enormous environmental destruction caused by invasive species entering the Great Lakes and inland waters worldwide. The Seattle Times published reporter Hal Bernton’s investigative series, “Losing Ground: The Struggle to Reduce CO2.” Lillian Thomas, an assistant managing editor at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, used her time at the university to produce the series “Poor Health: Poverty and Scarce Resources in U.S. Cities,” parts of which the Journal Sentinel and Milwaukee Neighborhood News Service published as well.
As part of the O’Brien Fellowship, each journalist returns to his or her newsroom with a Marquette student as a paid summer intern. The Journal Sentinel recently hired Erin Caughey as a full-time Web producer months after she had earned her B.A. in journalism from Marquette – and worked in the newsroom as a summer intern following her contributions to Egan’s series.
“Working with Dan was the building block to a career in online production and development for the Journal Sentinel’s daily news, entertainment and special projects sections,” Caughey said. “ Having the opportunity to continue working on projects like ‘Gasping for Action’ has been an incredible learning experience. I look forward to working on more ground-breaking projects in the future.”
Rutledge is joined in the Diederich College this academic year by O’Brien Fellows Brandon Loomis of The Arizona Republic and Marjorie Valbrun, who is aligned with The Washington Post. They are reporting on water scarcity and welfare reform, respectively. All three will return to Marquette in the fall to join discussions about their work at a third annual O’Brien Fellowship conference.