By Debra Kaufman
Special to TelevisionWeek
As the Radio-Television News Directors Association prepares to honor this year’s winners of the Edward R. Murrow Awards and the UNITY Awards, the organization’s leadership is excited about the state of broadcast news.
“I think it’s a good time for serious journalism,” said RTNDA President Barbara Cochran, who has been busy readying for the Oct. 16 ceremony at the Grand Hyatt New York Park Avenue. “We’ve recently done some studies about the public’s attitude toward news, and the public is now showing much greater interest in national and international news than we’ve seen in our previous studies.”
The 15 awards honor the best reporting and coverage in 2005, in areas including newscasting, investigative reporting, feature reporting and Web sites. “The coverage of Hurricane Katrina really stands out,” said Ms. Cochran, noting that New Orleans station WWL-TV, which won the Murrow Award for best continuous coverage by a large-market station, was the sole station in the area to stay on-air throughout Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath. “That was the biggest story of the year. Those kinds of events are the ones that really test the ability of a station to serve its local community.”
Ms. Cochran singled out the investigative reporting category as especially noteworthy for the RTNDA membership. “It shows how important that kind of enterprising community-oriented reporting is,” she said. “If these stations weren’t telling these stories, who would know about the potential abuses they uncover?” ABC won the Murrow for investigative reporting by a TV network for its “20/20” story “Cruelty to Owners,” about abuse of pet owners by the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals. Large-market Houston station KHOU-TV and small-market Fort Myers, Fla., station WBBH-TV also won Murrow Awards for investigative reporting.
In a recent online column, Ms. Cochran spotlighted the network evening news race, vis-%E0;-vis Katie Couric’s debut, with the observation that “all three network news anchors were playing at the top of their game … and their broadcasts were stuffed with news.” As the Murrow Awards approach, Ms. Cochran reiterated her upbeat assessment of the state of TV journalism.
“I think there’s such a horserace at the network news level; it makes everyone more competitive,” she said. “I’m glad to see they’re competing with hard news reporting, enterprise reporting. That permeates the whole business because of course local newscasts and network newscasts are closely tied together in terms of their success. And there are so many important stories out there that cry out for more in-depth reporting.”
Ms. Cochran noted the challenges of producing news coverage at the local station level. “People putting together local newscasts have to figure out how they can incorporate the kind of news the public is looking for into their newscast,” she said. “Not just to report the headlines of the day and use a piece or two they may be getting from their network affiliate, but how to localize those issues. How do you find the people in your community who may be from the country being affected? The world becomes smaller all the time, and there are a lot of ways to take national and international stories and make them relevant for your local markets.”
The RTNDA/UNITY Awards, developed with UNITY: Journalists of Color and established in 1998, honor “diversity in the newsroom through developing news content and editorial staffs that reflect the changing face of America,” according to UNITY.
“Since we started this award, it’s been gratifying to see how much coverage there is that speaks to other communities and brings forward the issues,” Ms. Cochran said. “TV stations tell stories about communities that might have been overlooked in the past, making us more aware of who our neighbors are and what their issues might be. As the awards get better known, there’s more competition, and it’s good to see that more people are doing this kind of work.”
This year’s RTNDA/UNITY Awards are going to ABC News for “ABC News Primetime: Family Lost, Family Found” in the network category, large-market WOOD-TV (Grand Rapids, Mich.) for “Race in Reality” and small-market KTUU-TV (Anchorage, Alaska) for “Toothaches & Heartaches.”
The RTNDA is also staying on top of the digital revolution and the rapid proliferation of alternative means of news distribution. Nine days after the Murrow Awards ceremony, the RTNDA, in conjunction with the National Association of Broadcasters, will offer a one-day conference focusing on the latest technologies affecting the news operation. Scheduled for Oct. 25 at the Jakob K. Javits Convention Center, the RTNDA News and Technology Summit will take place during NAB New York’s Content Creation+ Show and will cover blogging, podcasting, on-demand and other “pipes” for broadcast news.
“Clearly, TV news operations are changing from broadcast-only to operating lots of different platforms, and that’s challenging,” Ms. Cochran said. “It’s like playing 3-D chess. You can be in a breaking news situation and have to decide what you’re doing for broadcast, for the digital channel, for the Web site and for your cellphone partners. It’s new territory, so people are very anxious to exchange experiences, and the one-day conference is a perfect time to network.”
The conference will cover the technical and financial challenges of setting up had high-definition newsroom, learning how to embrace the “citizen journalist” movement and integrate viewers’ perspectives into newscasts and Web sites, learning best practices for reaching online audiences, and how to build a successful broadband strategy.