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NBC’s ‘Tom Brokaw Reports’ Scores Network Unity Award

Oct 7, 2007  •  Post A Comment

Although they will be presented along with the Edward R. Murrow Awards Oct. 15 at the Radio-Television News Directors Association awards dinner in New York, the Unity Awards are judged separately by journalism professionals from Journalists of Color, the National Association of Hispanic Journalists, the National Association of Black Journalists, the Asian American Journalists Association, the Native American Journalists Association and RTNDA. The Unity Awards recognize journalistic excellence in covering diversity issues.
This year’s Unity Award in the network/syndication category goes to NBC’s “Tom Brokaw Reports: Separate & Unequal,” a one-hour special that aired in July 2006.
“We were absolutely blown away by the work they did to put together this special,” said Derrick Hinds, RTNDA Region 4 director and one of this year’s Unity judges. “They really went in with their eyes wide open and took a very hard look at issues of race in this country and the way it impacts individual communities.”
“I think the idea really originated with Tom Brokaw himself, and with Marc Rosenwasser, who is the executive producer of ‘Brokaw Reports,’” said producer Joe Delmonico. “It grew out of what they, like everyone else in the world, saw in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.” The idea was to do a piece exploring inner-city poverty.
Mr. Delmonico said the issue brought up many underlying questions. “Why are so many people still stuck in those inner-city poverty situations 40 or 50 years after the civil rights movement was going to make these great advances?” he asked. “Why do we still have pockets of African American poverty today?”
Finding an inner city to focus on wasn’t the challenge; choosing one was. “We did over a month of re­search. At first we though it might be Memphis, and we went down to Mem­phis, but we finally settled on Jackson, [Miss.],” said producer Sho­sha­na Guy. They honed in on Jackson’s Lanier High School and a few of its past and present students.
During segregation, Lanier was a respected all-black school. Today, its student population is still virtually all black, but the school’s image has changed. “Now it has a not entirely deserved reputation as a troubled school,” Mr. Delmonico said. “We had a meeting with the superintendent of the Jackson school system and said we wanted to go into the ‘troubled school’ and document an entire year and shoot everything that happens. Miraculously, he said OK.”
The idea was to examine the challenges faced by Lanier’s students and their families, as well as how some graduates have gone on to great success.
“My goal was to present who [these students] were as people, as young black kids in a very poor area of Jackson, because they don’t get that platform and don’t generally get to speak their minds …and have the world pay attention to it,” Ms. Guy said.
Unprecedented access to the school, its staff and some students was crucial to getting the whole story. Ms. Guy and field producer Raynor Ramirez spent the better part of a year in Jackson, practically embedding them­selves into people’s lives.
“I’d go down probably twice a month for maybe five or six days at a time,” Ms. Guy said. “It does take that amount of time to really get in-depth with people, to get them to develop a kind of relationship with you so that in a sense you disappear and blend in and they live their lives as you document it.”
Because Ms. Guy and Mr. Ramirez spent so much time in the field, “Separate & Unequal” was made a little differently from other NBC news stories.
“We made a decision early on that we were going to shoot a great deal of material on smaller digital cameras,” Mr. Delmonico said.
“Shoshana and Raynor are not only experienced producers but photographers, so they … shot a lot of stuff themselves. Then we came in with the full-bore lights-and-cameras type of crew to shoot interviews that Tom Brokaw did. So it’s sort of a mixture of a documentary-style verite thing and then bringing in the big gear for the anchor.”
NBC committed some of its top news producers to the project, which still amazes Mr. Delmonico. “They made a really significant investment in it,” he said. “The fact that they were willing to do it is a tribute to NBC, and I’m sure it’s in no small part because when Tom Brokaw wants to do something, people pretty much let him.”
Ms. Guy is especially proud the subjects liked the final result. “People don’t necessarily like it when they see reflections [of themselves] they don’t like, but they can respect the way that we told their stories. And they did. That was ultimately good enough for me; everything else is just icing on the cake.”

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