There was quite a bit of deliberation before the National Association of Black Journalists decided who would be honored at its 2007 conference, especially when it came to the Best Practices and Thumbs Down awards.
This year, Best Practices goes to CNN while Thumbs Down goes to BET.
"There was plenty of discussion about those two awards, knowing that part of what we do in our advocacy role is to look at situations that aren't showcasing African Americans and African American journalism in the best light, as well as lifting up the journalism level," said Bryan Monroe, NABJ president and vice president/editorial director for Ebony and Jet magazines.
The NABJ's Media Monitoring Committee, which surveys news events throughout the year, recommended several Best Practices and Thumbs Down nominees to the board of directors.
Eric C. Deggans, chair of the Media Monitoring Committee and TV/media critic for the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times, said CNN's nomination was clinched when "Paula Zahn Now" went to Texas to hold a town hall meeting about the racially divided town of Vidor, Texas.
"Paula Zahn wanted to bring a town meeting there to talk with people from all pockets of the community to discuss why they seem to still struggle with these issues," he said.
Mr. Deggans said the NABJ initially hoped the award would draw attention to the positive work being done on "Paula Zahn Now." But acknowledging the cancellation of the ratings-challenged show, he said, "In a weird way the award becomes a capstone instead of a signal that people might want to watch the show."
Mr. Monroe noted the fact that CNN's overall programming in 2006 included frank conversations on race, diversity and inclusion, and that the network increased the number of African American anchors on the air. Both factors, he said, worked in CNN's favor.
"We've been pretty consistent with our coverage, trying to branch out as widely as we can, and what we did was focus some of that coverage into the Paula Zahn show," said Jim Walton, president of CNN Worldwide. "We're very pleased about [the award]. We've worked very hard to take into account that the world is full of a lot of different points of view and perspectives, and we try to build that into our workforce and also into our on-air and online coverage."
BET nabbed the Thumbs Down award for not providing continuous live coverage of Coretta Scott King's funeral. "We're not saying they didn't cover it, we're just saying that they didn't provide continuous live coverage in the way that other news outlets did," explained Mr. Deggans. "As a journalism organization, we thought there was an opportunity there for some quality journalism that they missed.
"Their history of making choices that are more about economic self-interest than about serving the traditional needs of the black viewer" also played into BET's Thumbs Down award, Mr. Deggans added. He said BET used to argue that it needed to make money to stay on the air, but now says its younger target viewers don't want traditional news but prefer it interstitially, or in highly produced specials.
BET responded to the Thumbs Down award by saying some of NABJ's accusations are inaccurate, adding that NABJ ignored BET's announcement of "the biggest investment and broadest array of black programming in television history."
The network's response to NABJ argues that BET "significantly ramped up its news coverage on a range of issues affecting the black community. In addition to 'Inside the Imus Controversy' and 'The DL Exposed' [examining black men who lead double sexual lives], other news specials this year included 'SOS: One Year Later,' a monthlong look at the lack of progress in the Gulf Coast; 'Bullets and Ballots,' exploring gun violence; 'Black Is Beautiful,' a critical look at the usage of the n-word; and 'Sex, Myths and the Real Deal,' exploring the AIDS epidemic in the black community."
Despite such programming, Mr. Deggans said, "There are a lot of people -- including the NABJ board -- who feel like they could try harder. So in the spirit of their recent show 'We Can Do Better,' I think this Thumbs Down award is probably a message from the NABJ board that maybe BET can do better."
The NABJ honors individuals, too, including promising young journalists such as freelance video journalist Mara Schiavocampo, who was named Emerging Journalist of the Year, as well as those who paved the way, such as Journalist of the Year Dean Baquet of the New York Times, Legacy Award winner Glenn Proctor of the Richmond (Va.) Times-Dispatch, Lifetime Achievement Award recipient Bernard Shaw and this year's Hall of Fame inductees.
"Nominations come from all different parts of the country," Mr. Monroe said. NABJ members, college professors, executives and other journalists all supply nominations.
The impact of NABJ on black journalists nationwide is evident in these awards.
"Almost every step of my career has been influenced by NABJ," said Ms. Schiavocampo, whose freelance pieces have appeared on "ABC News Now," Current TV and other outlets. "They got me my first internship, which is where I ended up being hired. It's just an amazing resource for networking, for information, for mentorship. They've always been there for me."
As for next year's hopefuls, Mr. Deggans noted that each year there are more nominees for Thumbs Down than for Best Practices, and predicted it will be worse next year: "We have lots of possible [Thumbs Down] nominees that we couldn't submit this time because they happened in 2007 -- everything from Don Imus to CNN's headline promoting a story on the search for Osama bin Laden saying, 'Where's Obama?' to the disproportionate impact on black employees of layoffs at the Philadelphia Inquirer. I expect to see all of those in the running for next year's awards."