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2005 duPont Award Winners: ‘Peter Jennings Reporting: Jesus and Paul–The Word and the Witness’

Jan 10, 2005  •  Post A Comment

ABC News set out to prove last year that viewers will tune in to news programming about religion. The network aired a three-hour prime-time special, “Peter Jennings Reporting: Jesus and Paul–The Word and the Witness,” on April 5 that drew 11.21 million total viewers, nearly double the audience it generated the previous week for a movie of the week and a “20/20” special.

The special told the story of Jesus and Paul, the man largely credited with disseminating Jesus’ message in the early days of Christianity.

The special grew out of a program ABC aired in 2000 called “Peter Jennings Reporting: The Search for Jesus” that reported on the facts and theories surrounding the birth, life and death of Jesus,” said Tom Yellin, the executive producer for both productions. Jeanmarie Condon is the producer and writer of the shows.

“Peter Jennings and [ABC News President] David Westin share a conviction that this is a subject matter that is of profound importance to our audience and is rarely covered well by network television, so they feel they are doing something of tremendous value by putting this on,” Mr. Yellin said. Given the interest in Mel Gibson’s film “The Passion of the Christ” and Dan Brown’s book “The Da Vinci Code,” the timing also seemed right for a follow-up, Mr. Yellin said.

Because religion is such a sensitive, hot-button topic for many people, Mr. Yellin said, ABC needed to be hypersensitive to the quality of the journalism. “[You need to] be as respectful of the subject matter as you could possibly be, and the best way to be respectful is to be journalistic and keep asking the key questions and evaluating the information,” he said.

The show included interviews with numerous biblical scholars, both secular and religious, Christian and Jewish. Since the story is lacking in video, the producers decided to shoot scenes from the Middle East to evoke the past.

Networks don’t cover religion very often. Mr. Yellin hopes the success of “The Word and the Witness” can change that. “If you believe strongly in a specific subject that is ignored by other journalists or not given enough weight by other journalists and you do a good job, people will pay attention,” he said.