In Depth

The Case When Awards Entries Aren't Up to Snuff

 By Hillary Atkin

With a plethora of categories in awards contests that honor the best in broadcast and digital journalism, every so often the organizations that hand out the honors face some thorny dilemmas.
They must decide the course of action if the caliber of the entries is not up to snuff or what happens if there are not enough entries in a category.

Each organization handles those sorts of scenarios differently. The Radio Television Digital News Association administers regional and national Edward R. Murrow Awards. Including all of the regional and national awards, there are more than 1,000 Murrow Award winners every year.

Like many of the other awards granting entities, the Murrows have a “no-win” policy if none of the entries are deemed award-worthy by the judges. The Murrow judges are comprised of RTDNA board members, former board members, past winners and experts such as journalism and communications professors.

However, this sort of situation only occurs on the regional and not the national level, according to Stacey Woelfel, chairman of the RTDNA. There are 13 regions and nearly 80 categories, and within each are class divisions for station size.

Entries are judged for content, creativity and execution and are awarded a numerical score, with 10 being the best, and then the entities are ranked numerically. The Murrow Awards do not allow ties, so when they occur, judges are asked to re-rank the entries.

“The judges will take another look and typically discuss the scores and any change they want to make and one will come out on top eventually,” said Woelfel. “It happens fairly often. It’s not uncommon to get 30 to 35 entries in the reporting and feature categories. The chance to get a tie is high. There’s a pretty interactive process between the judges.”

In the case of substandard scores, no award is given in that category.

For the Sigma Delta Chi awards, administered by the Society of Professional Journalists, it’s rare that there is not a winner in a certain category — but it is possible. The awards for radio, television, newspapers and magazines encompass about 53 categories, with divisions in each for size of the media outlet.

“There is no requirement for a first place in our categories,” said SPJ executive director Joe Skeel. “If the work is not worthy, the judges make no first-place award. It doesn’t happen often. Generally, applicants and submissions are top-notch. When you win one, it’s quite an accomplishment.”

For the news and documentary and business and financial Emmy Awards given out by the National Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, there is also a possibility of no winner in any of about 40 categories, yet it is exceedingly rare.

Entries are judged on a scale of 1 to 10, with the criteria being excellence in content, creativity and execution. “Once all the judges score entries, an accounting firm comes up with a set of scores and the high score wins,” said David Winn, director of the News & Documentary Emmy Awards. “There is a possibility of no winner. It rarely happens, because the quality is high at the national level but, theoretically, let’s say all judges gave a [score of] 4 or 5. The national awards committee, made up of television academies from around the country, could determine there won’t be a winner.”

In contrast to popular categories in all of the contests that get numerous entries, what happens in some of the newer or more specialized areas if there are just a handful competing?

For the news and documentary Emmys, Winn said it isn’t an issue — that there are always enough submissions to guarantee a full slate of nominees.

In the Sigma Delta Chi awards contests, the number of entries in the category has no bearing on whether an award will be handed out.

“We don’t have a set number of how many entries we need,” said Skeel. “If there’s a category where we only get three or four entries, the judges will determine if anything is worthy of a national award. If the answer is no, we simply don’t give an award in that category. But that is rare that we have that issue.”

Similarly, the Murrow Awards do not have a threshold for how many entries are required in a given category. “If there’s one entry, it still could win,” said Woelfel. “If there are three or four, to not give an award would penalize what could be a very good entry — even if it shows that not many stations are doing that kind of work. We don’t want to penalize anyone.”