In Depth

Profiling Best of the Best

PBS Special Offers Sampling of Winners

On Friday, Jan. 16, PBS will broadcast “Telling the Truth: The Best in Broadcast Journalism,” the annual look at the winners of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards for excellence in the field.

ABC News correspondent Bob Woodruff will host this special “best of” compilation.

“In the past we’ve had CNN’s Christiane Amanpour and also PBS’ Michelle Martin hosting,” said producer Will Cohen of Rain Media, the independent production company that makes “Telling the Truth” for PBS. “The hope is to bring some profile to the piece, so we chose people who are indicative of the level of seriousness that we want to bring to our film, out of respect to the award.”

Mr. Woodruff is a particularly apt choice for 2009, as much for his personal story of survival as for his award-winning broadcast journalism.

In January 2006, soon after becoming co-anchor of “ABC World News Tonight,” Mr. Woodruff suffered severe brain injuries while on assignment in Iraq. Despite the difficulties including aphasia, which hampered his ability to speak, he has recovered and has returned to broadcasting.

“The work he did beforehand was an enormous part of his career, but his profile recently has had to do with what he went through in Iraq,” said Mr. Cohen. “And we wanted to bring someone in who has gone through the wringer as a journalist. It’s pretty clear that he’s been very thoughtful about his experience and he brought a lot of that to the interviews he did for us.”

Following the Process

“Telling the Truth” uses interviews with the reporters and producers of the duPont winners, and the programs demonstrate how great journalistic work emerges from America’s radio and television newsrooms each day.

“This is the fourth time we’ve done the documentary. We work in conjunction with Columbia University to produce an hour for WNET that essentially gives you a profile of all of the winners,” said Mr. Cohen. “All are mentioned, but we usually focus on a handful of those that we get a little more in-depth about. Behind the scenes, how the pieces got made, the approaches that the journalists took. We build the piece off of interviews with those particular winners and then clips of the films.”

There are common denominators involved in most of the winning projects.

“Many of the traits I think you can assume—tenacity, curiosity, not being willing to settle for half a story,” said Mr. Cohen. “A lot of these stories take a lot of years to make. Some get turned out really fast, which is another kind of challenge, but many of these pieces are real labors of love and the people have lived those stories. Part of what the duPonts means is that they are getting recognition after all those years of digging. It means a lot.”

The winners who are interviewed and whose films are featured in “Telling the Truth” this year include a piece from ABC’s “Nightline.” “The Other War: Afghanistan” was reported by Sebastian Junger and Tim Hetherington, who spent a good chunk of 2007 in Afghanistan, said Mr. Cohen. “Something like that, I think, reminds you that journalism is hard every time. Every one of these stories is a battle, but a battle in a different way. You never can predict how it’s going to be hard, just that you know it’s going to be hard.

“The thing I came away with this year is the extraordinary cross-section of pieces we get to work with, and that’s partly a credit to the awards, people doing journalism in all kinds of different forms,” Mr. Cohen added. “Films, TV, radio, new media—it’s a real range of stories, and people are very articulate when they talk about what went into making them. It’s pretty inspiring to hear them and it gives you a real sense of pride in the field and in the practice.”