Telling the Story

Jan 18, 2009  •  Post A Comment

The 13 winners of this year’s Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award for excellence in broadcast journalism are an eclectic mix of international reporting, results-oriented community journalism, sweeping inquiries into inequity in healthcare and the country’s financial collapse, classic investigations into government waste and cover-up and an environmental documentary.
It’s a collection of reporting that Abi Wright, the awards program’s new director, calls “very rich and diverse.”
Chosen from 529 radio and television entries, the winning programs, which aired in the United States between July 1, 2007, and June 30, 2008, will be honored at an evening ceremony on Jan. 22.
For the first time, a Gold Baton, for 20 years the highest honor granted by the awards program, will go to a local television station, longtime Texas powerhouse WFAA-TV, for its continuing commitment to outstanding investigative reporting. A Gold Baton, which is awarded only when warranted, was last handed out four years ago.
This year alone, WFAA submitted three investigations that the jury found to be some of the biggest projects done in the eligibility period, according to juror insights provided by Ms. Wright. WFAA investigative reporters Brett Shipp and Byron Harris and producer Mark Smith juggle the major projects with other one-day stories, the judges noted, keeping numerous balls in the air.
A panel of about 75 screeners winnowed down the entries to the finalists. This year’s entries, said Ms. Wright, broke down into 276 from networks, which consistently submit the most entries, and 38 from independents. Television stations were represented by stations in 49 major markets, stations in 49 major markets, 58 medium markets and 35 small markets (although no small-market award was given). Radio producers submitted 73 entries, up from 45 last year.
Unlike last year, not one of this year’s winners is for work concerning the Iraq war. But reflecting the changing military priorities of the U.S., ABC News’ “Nightline” is being honored for its harrowing combat reporting from eastern Afghanistan.
Three of the other international reporting awards will go to reports from Asia, an area of the world that has been receiving increasing journalistic attention, partly because of China’s hosting of the Summer Olympics.
NPR Honored
NPR, which won three awards this year, is being honored for its adroit change of plans when its reporters traveled to China to prepare reports in advance of the Olympics and instead found themselves in the middle of the devastating Chengdu earthquake.
HBO’s Cinemax is taking home an award for China coverage as well, for its emotional look at children with AIDS living in remote villages.
Public television’s ITVS won for its film about a Japanese couple’s 30-year search for their daughter, who was kidnapped by North Korean spies.
Another of the awards for international reporting goes to CNN for “God’s Warriors,” its three-part globe-spanning examination of religious fundamentalism in Islam, Christianity and Judaism, which jurors praised for the network’s investment of time and resources. “The ambition of that series, and the sweeping nature of it and the time and effort that went into it, yielding such incredible results, really made it award-worthy,” said Ms. Wright.
Courageous Current
Current TV, former Vice President Al Gore’s 3-year-old cable network and Web site, won its first award, for what the jurors dubbed a “courageous” documentary about the rise of neo-Nazi hate groups in Russia.
That report, which was spurred by viral videos that the reporter found on the Internet, aired on cable as well as online. The duPont program, mindful of the increasing amount of Web-only news broadcasts coming from places such as “Frontline World” and newspapers including the Washington Post and the New York Times, in 2008-09 will expand its entry categories to include Web-exclusive news broadcasts.
“We’re looking to the future; we’re looking to what’s happening right now,” Ms. Wright said.
On the domestic side, public radio and public television undertook extensive investigations into complicated financial stories. The judges were impressed with the clear language in a collaboration between NPR and “This American Life” on the subprime mortgage crisis, a program that has proven to have a lengthy life online as the financial crisis has deepened.
PBS’ series “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?” meanwhile, took scientific data and translated it into individual television-friendly stories and economic disparities in healthcare. “I watched it when it aired and I remember it really caused me to examine, ‘Wow, if my ZIP code is really affecting my lifespan, what does it say about this country and what can be done?’” Ms. Wright said, expressing admiration for the program.
Oregon Public Broadcasting contributed an examination into the environmental destruction caused by invasive species, while National Public Radio was honored for its reports on the high rate of sexual assaults of Native American women.
On the local front, the jurors chose to single out reporting that got results in the community. Frequent winner WJLA-TV in Washington was honored for its investigation into corrupt pediatric dental clinics, which were later shut down, while Tampa’s WTVT-TV is taking home a baton for its reports that freed a truck driver wrongly convicted of causing a fatal accident.
The awards, which were established in 1942 and have been administered by Columbia since 1968, will be presented Thursday, Jan. 22, in the traditional ceremony in the rotunda of Columbia University’s Low Memorial Library. CBS News anchor Katie Couric will host, with NBC News’ Hoda Kotb and “This American Life” host Ira Glass joining her to present the gold and silver batons.


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