By Lee Hall
Special to TelevisionWeek
It began with the innocent flick of a lighter inside a truck filled with flammable chemicals. A careless act on an Indiana interstate highway in July 2003 ignited a fire that killed two men and sent 11 others to the burn unit at Wishard Memorial Hospital in Indianapolis.
For WTHR-TV anchor-reporter Anne Ryder, photographer Steve Starnes and editor Jason Richards, that moment of tragedy launched a painstaking process to document over the course of more than a year the life-and-death struggles that occur behind the scenes at a big-city hospital. The Radio-Television News Directors Association honored their work with two Edward R. Murrow Awards, for best news series and best news documentary in the large-market television category.
Ms. Ryder had been prepping for such a story long before the explosion and had discussed with her boss the possibility of a behind-the-scenes report on the Wishard burn unit.
“She came to me and said that this was the incident we really wanted to follow from beginning to end. I told her to go for it, because I knew the quality of work they would do,” said Jacques Natz, news director of the NBC affiliate owned by Dispatch Broadcast Group.
Ms. Ryder credits Matt Rainey, a photographer for the Newark (N.J.) Star-Ledger, for the idea. Mr. Rainey won a Pulitzer Prize in 2001 for his photos that chronicled the recovery of two college students critically burned in a fire on campus.
Ms. Ryder began making contacts with hospital officials to sell them on the concept of allowing a television news crew unprecedented access to the institution’s inner workings. Once the story was under way, Ms. Ryder and her team worked independently of other WTHR reporters, who were covering an ongoing legal investigation into the fire.
“It was very important to us that the news department not be able to get its hands on our video for spot news purposes. We had promised the families that that would not happen, so we had to keep our video separate,” Ms. Ryder said.
The commitment paid off for WTHR, though Mr. Natz acknowledged that news managers face tough decisions over whether to devote that much time and resources to a single story.
“You can’t have a whole staff of people on these types of projects and still do daily news. It’s difficult, no question about it,” he said.
WTHR invited Joe Gallagher, one of the most seriously injured fire victims, to attend this week’s Murrow Award ceremony in New York.
Hope, despair, war and politics provided the central themes of many of this year’s Murrow winners. The 2005 entry field was the largest ever. More than 540 news organizations submitted 3,390 separate entries for consideration.
“There is significant commitment in these winners as well as the rest of the entrants to some solid issue coverage and strong storytelling,” said Angie Kucharski, VP and station manager at WBZ-TV and WSBK-TV in Boston and an RTNDA board member.
MTV Checks In
MTV’s news and documentary division picked up its first-ever Murrow award, for “True Life: I’m Living in Iraq,” named best news documentary among TV network entries. The series chronicled the lives of young people-both American and Iraqi-during a period of heavy fighting in late 2003.
“We are very much the voice of young people, and it’s important they see how other young people are living and what they are experiencing out there in the world. They may not be getting exactly that from other news outlets,” said Marshall Eisen, supervising producer of MTV news and documentaries.
MTV dispatched two crews, led by producer David Schisgall and field director Kouross Ismaeli, who roamed the streets of Baghdad and surrounding countryside for several weeks speaking with U.S. soldiers and Iraqi youth.
“If you are doing a piece like this in the United States, you’re not really too worried about your interview subjects getting shot,” Mr. Eisen said. “The toughest thing about the project was just trying to get into the lives of the Iraqis, because just being around journalists made them targets.”
MTV shot the footage between November 2003 and January 2004. The final product ran in March 2004.
Re-creating the Past
KATV, the Albritton-owned ABC affiliate in Little Rock, Ark., won two Murrow Awards, for best overall news operation and documentary among small-market stations.
The documentary, titled “396 Days,” retold the story of a former Arkansas governor who rose from obscure country politician to president of the United States.
“We have something like 25,000 hours of film and videotape dating back to 1961,” said News Director Randy Dixon, who spent hundreds of hours poring over raw footage, most of which had never been shown on the air.
A small crew that included the station’s Marketing Director Tim Vahsholtz, General Manager Dale Nicholson, photographer Tim Hamilton and Mr. Dixon produced a 40-minute documentary that aired in conjunction with the opening of the William J. Clinton Presidential Library in November 2004.
“We knew there would be a lot of people in town for the event who would not remember him as this unknown candidate from Arkansas. Our documentary told the story of how Bill Clinton went from unknown to president,” Mr. Dixon said.
KATV previously won a Murrow Award for its Web site, but this year’s two-fer represented the station’s first Murrow recognition for its on-air reporting.
Too Much of a Good Thing?
In all, 54 news organizations will accept 72 Murrow Awards at tonight’s ceremony. RTNDA has recognized outstanding achievement in electronic journalism since 1971 with the Edward R. Murrow Awards.
Once the realm of radio and television stations alone, the Murrow competition has expanded rapidly in recent years and now includes television and radio networks, cable and Web sites in addition to categories for writing, production and sports reporting.
Ms. Kucharski conceded there is concern among some that the rapid expansion of the Murrow field may lead to a dilution of the award’s value, a possibility the RTNDA board closely monitors.
“There is a very delicate balance between assuring that we recognize the highest-quality work and still protect the integrity of the award and also provide some avenue for emerging media,” she said. “We have those discussions constantly.”
The Murrow Awards ceremony takes place at the Grand Hyatt Hotel in Midtown Manhattan. Presenters include Campbell Brown of NBC News, Elizabeth Vargas of ABC News and Fredricka Whitfield of CNN.