Maintaining Standards

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

Abi Wright was named the successor to Jonnet Abeles, the longtime director of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, in July 2008. She came to Columbia from the Committee to Protect Journalists, where she was communications director, and before that was CPJ’s Asia program coordinator. Before joining CPJ, she was a television producer in NBC News’ Moscow bureau and elsewhere. She recently spoke to TelevisionWeek correspondent Elizabeth Jensen about the selection process for the duPonts and what distinguishes them from other awards for electronic journalism.
TelevisionWeek: How did you find the jury process for the first time?
Abi Wright: I was really impressed with the amount of preparation that went into it, the care with which everybody handled the selection process, and felt passionately about it. There were intense exchanges. I learned a lot just from listening to these guys.
TVWeek: Give me an example.
Ms. Wright: The elements that go into a winning story aren’t always the same. There’s a subjective element. And yet there are standards that carry across all of them. There are elements of putting in time and resources to cover something that isn’t next-door, as in “God’s Warriors” or as in our piece about Russia, “From Russia With Hate.” People traveling long distances or overcoming huge obstacles to bring important stories to our attention.
There’s an enterprise component as well that’s really impressive—creative ways of reporting difficult stories, as in “Unnatural Causes.” This multipart series about healthcare is such a refreshing way of looking at this issue, why there is such a disparity in healthcare in the United States. …
There is a public-service component, which is really compelling—both in the “Unnatural Causes” piece and one of our winners, “Drilling for Dollars,” about these corrupt pediatric dental clinics taking advantage of impoverished children for financial gain—giving voice to people who wouldn’t otherwise be heard from.
I’ve also learned so much about the award since coming here. It’s an interesting time to be taking it over because in many ways we need that inspiration more than ever right now in the industry, which is changing so much.
TVWeek: Can you elaborate on that?
Ms. Wright: The barriers have come down in terms of who can be a journalist these days, in ways that are positive in many aspects, so that anyone can pick up a camera and film something and cover an event in a journalistic way. Given that though, that in my mind makes prizes like the duPont Awards even more important, so that there are standards for people to learn from, both our audiences and professionals. So as journalism itself becomes more diffuse, these prizes take on an added significance.
TVWeek: There are many programs out there that recognize quality electronic journalism. One of the things that struck me this year was how many of them ended up singling out the same work, like “God’s Warriors” or the local reporting of WFAA-TV [both Peabody winners]. Is it just that a few programs rose to the top this year, or does that reflect on the lack of other quality reporting out there?
Ms. Wright: A core difference with the duPont Awards is that we really are only looking at journalism. The Peabodys have an entertainment component; so do the Emmys. The core of this prize is about doing good journalism.
There are certainly pieces in years that receive multiple prizes; those pieces clearly stand out to all these different jurors for a reason.
It’s interesting just looking back through the years at the kinds of pieces that have won awards, how even the pool of applicants is starting to change. One of our award winners this year is from Current TV, a very new broadcaster, broadcasting on cable and on the Internet. We’re going to be expanding our awards categories this year to include Web-only broadcasts.
TVWeek: Like the Pulitzers.
Ms. Wright: Exactly. … There are a lot of great broadcast pieces that are being done for the Web and we want to recognize those efforts as well. Shepherding that in is one of the main things I’m going to be focusing on this year, in addition to streamlining our whole selection process here, bringing everything up to a digital standard, including the way pieces are entered, the way things are judged. I’m trying to digitize the whole process this year.
TVWeek: You came from CPJ and before that a career as a television producer. So you know the medium and have an appreciation for the risks that go into the work. What attracted you to this job, and how does that experience inform what you plan to do?
Ms. Wright: I went to Barnard as an undergraduate and certainly was hoping to get back here at some point in my career. The attraction is a deep personal appreciation for good journalism. To be part of this award is really an honor for me. … There’s a continuum there from my work for CPJ and now my work with journalism awards, doing what I can to bolster this community, whether it be protecting my colleagues overseas or doing what I can to help uphold journalistic standards. [As one of the 75 screeners who helped winnow entries this year], what I was really impressed with was the amount of great work being done. I think in the hail of bad news about news in general, people lose sight of that. … Things are changing [in the news business]. I don’t think anyone knows where we’re headed, but in the end people will still need quality journalism, news and information, so anything that can be done to further those goals is worthwhile.


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