By Ginger Carter Miller
Special to TelevisionWeek
As a general assignment reporter for WYFF-TV in Greenville, S.C., Marc Willis was proud of the job he did covering the shooting at a courthouse in downtown Atlanta last spring.
So he packaged a tape of that and other examples of his work and applied for the Radio-Television News Directors Foundation’s 2005 Michele Clark Fellowship “to see if I could win something.”
The $1,000 award, named for a CBS News correspondent killed in a plane crash while on assignment in 1972, is given to promising minority professionals in television or radio news.
Mr. Willis said he was pleased and surprised when he was selected. “I think of myself as an average reporter,” he said. “I work at it every day and I was really surprised when I was told I won.” He calls himself “an ordinary man on a mission to achieve extraordinary things.”
The Michele Clark Fellowship is just one of hundreds of awards and prizes offered to broadcasters around the world. Sponsored by professional organizations like the RTNDF, colleges and universities and personal and private foundations, these awards offer incentive and honors to those who work in the field.
Why sponsor an award? Most granting agencies agree that recognition-for the achievement of the winner, in honor or memory of someone, or to garner prestige for a granting organization-is high on the list of motives for an award. Fund-raising is a secondary motivation, the agencies said.
Consider the Harry Chapin Media Awards, given annually in print and electronic media for outstanding coverage of hunger and poverty issues. The competition, formerly known as the World Hunger Media Awards, is administered and financed by World Hunger Year and named for WHY’s co-founder, the late singer/songwriter Harry Chapin. The awards include cash prizes of up to $2,500 in several categories.
The Chapin awards, created in 1982, also honor work that focuses on the causes of hunger and poverty and the forces that create self-reliance. This includes work on economic inequality and insecurity, unemployment, homelessness, domestic and international policies and their reform, community empowerment, sustainable development, food production, agriculture, nutrition and the struggle for land.
The motive for sponsoring the award is two-fold, WHY spokeswoman Lisa Batitto said.
“A lot of journalists tell us the social issues beat isn’t one that gets a lot of attention paid to it in the newsroom, and that the level of prestige for that beat is low. We feel like we’re helping the journalists by recognizing their outstanding work,” she said.
Ms. Batitto said WHY also helps journalists by providing media referrals to community organizations.
“Through the prestige we gain from these awards, we in turn can help make connections for these groups with the media. We’ve found that’s a great benefit for everyone involved,” she said.
Reporter Sorious Samura, producer Ivan O’Mahoney and director Will Daws won the award in 2002 for “Guinea: Sex for Food,” produced by Insight News Television for CNN and ITN/Channel 4 News. In 1997, “Dateline NBC” won for “Children of the Harvest.” Although the awards are open to broadcasters, most entries come from print organizations.
Among the most prestigious of international recognitions for work in the media is the George Foster Peabody Award, housed and administered by the University of Georgia’s Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.
The Peabody Awards were first given for excellence in radio programming. Today, they recognize distinguished achievement and meritorious service by radio and television networks, stations, producing organizations, cable television organizations and individuals. The awards perpetuate the memory of the banker and philanthropist whose name they bear.
At the 64th annual ceremony, held in New York last April, more than 32 broadcast productions won awards. The Peabody board gave the Individual Peabody Award to Grant Tinker, creator of “Mary Tyler Moore” and other programming, for fostering “creative opportunities that led to some of television’s most exciting work-and workers.”
Other Individual Peabody Award winners over the years include Rod Serling, legendary news anchor Walter Cronkite, actor/director Orson Welles, Charles Kuralt of CBS News, TV producer Norman Lear, NBC correspondent Pauline Frederick, actor/director Barbra Streisand, TV host and producer Oprah Winfrey and CNN chief international correspondent Christiane Amanpour.
Horace Newcomb, Lambdin Kay Chair for the Peabody Awards since July 2001, said that in a sense, the Peabody Award is the Pulitzer Prize of electronic media. Lambdin Kay was formerly the general manager of radio station WSB-AM in Atlanta.
“The dean of the Grady School of Journalism was approached in 1939 by [Mr. Kay] because the National Association of Broadcasters was interested in creating an award for [radio] broadcasting,” Mr. Newcomb said. “They wanted the same sort of neutral position and protection as that afforded the Pulitzer Prize by its association with Columbia University. The university Board of Regents agreed in 1940, and the first awards were presented in 1941 for work done in 1940.”
But the Peabody has evolved into much more, perhaps, than Mr. Kay ever dreamed. And it is administered in a unique manner.
“The Peabody is considered by most media professionals to be the most prestigious prize in the electronic media industries,” Mr. Newcomb said. “We do not make awards according to category. We have no set number.
“Of more than 1,100 entries last year we made 32 awards. There have never been more than 36 in any given year over the past 64 years. Every entry ends up competing with every other entry.”
The scope of the awards covers all elements of electronic media, Mr. Newcomb added.
“From the beginning, it has been presented for entertainment, public service campaigns, education,” he said. “It should also be noted that we are an international award, having presented Peabodys to work from other countries from a very early time in the award’s history.”
The award is funded by the organization, Mr. Newcomb said, and funds are raised through entry fees and the awards luncheon. The awards bring prestige to the University of Georgia in the process, he added.
“I have no idea why other universities might present awards. My guess is that most consider universities excellent sites for independent judgment and a high degree of neutral respect,” he said. “The Peabody Awards afford UGA a degree of recognition in the media industries, but generally do not add a great deal to the overall fund-raising efforts of the university. We’re listed in the current UGA capital campaign for a gift to endow the awards.”
RTNDF honors professional achievements in electronic journalism through numerous prestigious awards, and like the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation and the Nieman Foundation, it reaches out to broadcast journalists to enhance their career. How the Michele Clark Fellowship award will affect Mr. Willis is unclear. But he’s still proud to have won the cash and the trip to the RTNDA convention in Las Vegas to accept his honor.
“I’m not sure how my career will benefit from this award,”
he said. “I guess only time will tell.”