Rush is On for News Awards

Dec 19, 2005  •  Post A Comment

By Lee Hall

Special to TelevisionWeek

The new year is a time when newsrooms all over the country scramble to select and package their awards entries for the past year’s work.

January deadlines are set for major competitions including the Edward R. Murrow Awards, the George Foster Peabody Awards and those sponsored by the Society of Professional Journalists and by Investigative Reporters and Editors. A number of significant but lesser-known organizations, such as American Women in Radio and Television and the Scripps Howard Foundation, also require entries to be received during January.

“We leave it up to the reporters to enter,” said John Tracy, news director at Zaser & Longston-owned KTUU-TV in Anchorage, Alaska. He added that if the station has a lot of interest from the staff, it holds an internal competition to cull all but the most worthy entries.

KTUU won a 2004 national Sigma Delta Chi Award for feature reporting from the Society of Professional Journalists for “Counting the Rural Vote,” its feature story on the difficulties of voting in the remote Alaskan village of Kasigluk. The town, bifurcated by the Kuskokwim River, has few roads and no bridge to connect its old and new sections. Poll workers spend half a day on one side of the river, then load voting machines onto a boat and sail across to the other side.

Election Day is a major event in Kasigluk. “Some people in the big city won’t cross the street to vote. These people have to cross a river, and many of them come from great distances on snow machines to get to their polling place,” Mr. Tracy said.

Awards competitions can be expensive. In some cases, the stations pay. In others, the individual reporters or photojournalists have to come up with entry fees out of their own pockets. Contests come in all shapes and sizes, from local press club certificates to the international prestige of the Peabody and the Murrow. Even with the additional stresses of downsized newsrooms and greater workloads, the annual battle for award recognition remains a strong motivator for some.

“There are not many companies in today’s economically tight times that would allow this kind of long-term commitment to reporting a story like this,” said Jacques Natz, news director at Dispatch Broadcast Group-owned WTHR-TV in Indianapolis, which won two national Murrow Awards this year for its reporting on the life-and-death struggles behind the scenes of a big-city hospital burn unit.

Reporter Anne Ryder, photographer Steve Starnes and editor Jason Richards spent months documenting the treatment and recovery of the victims of a fire that killed two men and sent 11 others to the burn unit at Wishard Memorial Hospital.

“The best stories I have done have come through the kind of enterprise where you think ahead,” Ms. Ryder said. “You have to think and plan and make the kinds of contacts you must have to be ready when a story like this presents itself.”

Something for Everyone

The 2004 Edward R. Murrow competition, sponsored by the Radio-Television News Directors Association, attracted a record number of entries. RTNDA in recent years has expanded the number of categories to encompass work done at networks and for station Web sites as well as at individual radio and television stations.

“There is a very delicate balance between ensuring that we recognize the highest-quality work and still protect the integrity of the award and also provide some avenue for emerging media. We have those discussions constantly,” said Angie Kucharski, VP and station manager at Viacom-owned WBZ-TV and WSBK-TV in Boston and an RTNDA board member.

The National Press Photographers Association received more than 600 entries for its 2004 national competition, down slightly from previous years.

“I think with the downsizing of newsrooms, reporters and photographers are forced to turn in more than one story a day. When you’re rushing around from one assignment to the next, you are unable to put a lot of energy and effort on any one story,” said Merry Murray-Rogers, a photojournalist

at Emmis Communications-owned KSNW-TV in Wichita, Kan., and NPPA contest chair.

The NPPA competition is divided by market size and includes a topical award to focus on the year’s biggest story. Hurricane coverage will dominate the 2005 entries, Ms. Murray-Rogers predicted. NPPA this year added a new category to honor a reporter or field producer who, along with a photojournalist, produced an outstanding visual story.

Although the big-name awards get much of the notoriety and on-air promotion by winners, there are scores of organizations that honor television journalists for excellent work.

This year’s hurricanes will doubtless bring a higher profile to organizations such as the Society of Environmental Journalists, which sponsors an annual awards competition. SEJ Executive Director Beth Parke says journalists are starting to understand that almost any story has some environmental angle.

“The environment is a very broad beat. It’s kind of a false choice to isolate environmental reporting as a sort of ‘ghetto’ issue that is narrowly defined. Environmental issues can be highly complex,” she said.

Packaging the Product

Complexity can get in the way of a good award entry. Judges pressed for time and facing a mountain of tapes may view only the opening seconds of an entry. But Ms. Parke said a story’s intricacy should not discourage journalists from tackling tough environmental issues.

“It doesn’t always take a lot of words or a lot of time to get to the essence of what’s important in these stories and to deepen a sense of context,” she said.

Just what constitutes a winning entry depends on the individual judge.

“There were entries in the NPPA Best of TV Photojournalism contest this past year that some judges really liked and others didn’t. But as long as you have the basics, anyone can have a winning entry,” Ms. Murray-Rogers said.

Judges look for a well-rounded story with a distinct beginning, middle and end. It helps to have an element of surprise that connects emotionally with the viewer.

“Our stories have a great advantage in that they are very different from what most judges are used to seeing,” said Rhonda McBride, who teamed with photographer Phil Walczak on KTUU’s winning entry. “Our stories win because they often showcase people who otherwise would not have a voice. Those are really the strongest stories.”

Wayne Freedman of ABC owned-and-operated KGO-TV in San Francisco, has picked up 47 regional Emmy Awards for his writing and reporting. His advice for winning: Just do your job.

“One should not try to win an Emmy Award. You do excellent work and maybe it happens,” Mr. Freedman said in a November interview with Off Camera, the official publication of the Northern California Chapter of the National Academy of Television Arts and Sciences.

The key, he said, is doing a story that advances the medium and is at once distinct.

“Remember, the judges are cynical. Try to make submissions as different as possible, while remaining true to the requirements of the category,” Mr. Freedman said.

Following the rules is paramount. Ms. Murray-Rogers pointed out that judges often are sticklers for protocol.

“Entries can get disqualified for a minor mistake. But if you let one entry slide, you have to let them all slide, and that’s not fair to those who did everything correct,” she said.