former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

Out of the News Honored for Best Research About Journalism at SPJ Sigma Delta Chi Awards

In Blog on June 24, 2013 at 9:00 am

The main ballroom of the National Press Club in Washington was an extraordinary place last Friday night, June 21, as the Society of Professional Journalists honored 84 reporters and editors in print, broadcast and online for excellence in journalism. 

I was thrilled to be among this distinguished group of 84.  Out of the News was cited for excellence in media research.  The message of event is similar to the message of my book: Despite enormous economic challenges, a lot of good journalism is being done throughout the country, and is serving democracy well.

I can’t do justice to all the winners, but here are a few examples of stellar reporting, thinking and writing that won the coveted awards.

 As Connecticut’s major newspaper, The Hartford Courant had the solemn and sad duty of trying to make sense of the massacre of children at the Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newton last December.  In a series of editorials, it did so.  I especially admired “We Have to Change,”  with its opening admonition to readers, “Stay angry. Remember how you felt this weekend,” and its rejection of the political platitude that now is not the time to discuss gun control.  “We disagree; now is exactly the time,” the editorial states.  “If the brutal execution of 20 children and six educators doesn’t spur meaningful action, we are not worthy of their memory.”

David Fanning, who for decades has helmed PBS’s documentary series Frontline, had another winner in Big Sky, Big Money – by far the clearest and most definitive documentary I’ve seen that details the impact of relaxed campaign spending rules on democracy.  Set in 2012 in Montana during the closely contested Senate race between Sen. Jon Tester and challenger Rep. Denny Rehberg, the documentary probes how out-of-state money changed the political landscape in that state, to the consternation of Democrats and Republicans alike. 

The documentary also demonstrates the growing collaboration among nonprofit media.  PBS made the film in cooperation with the online investigative journalism site, ProPublica and American Public Media’s Marketplace.

 Another honor went to Jim Dwyer for a column on the unnecessary death of a 12-year-old boy from sepsis, an often lethal blood infection that, in this case, resulted from a cut.  A big man in a light suit, Dwyer doesn’t look the epitome of Manhattan cool.  Perhaps that reflects the humanity that imbues his metro columns for The New York Times.  Dwyer deftly describes various facets of his city and its residents, telling beautifully written stories that often show the consequences of bureaucratic indifference or incompetence.  His winning column detailed how Rory Staunton’s (age 12) symptoms were recognized too late both by his pediatrician and then by physicians at a New York hospital.  Their inattention led to his death.  The column paints a real-life portrait of an exceptional and thriving young man, while giving us an almost clinical report of the missed symptoms that robbed him of his life.  What is masterful is Dwyer’s attention to detail and his ability to let the facts make his case. There is outrage here, but it is controlled. 

We often forget how much good, solid reporting happens beyond big media.  Mary Beth Pfeiffer won for her in-depth investigative reporting for the Poughkeepsie Journal on lyme disease, a big problem in this region of New York State. Her stories question whether federal agencies have done enough to investigate lyme disease’s potential long-term effects, and to take seriously the possibility of the existence of chronic lyme disease.  Pfeiffer is covering a medical controversy, and her many stories are helping to raise the visibility of an issue where it appears that there is insufficient scientific discourse and that conflicts of interest between government officials and an influential medical society may be harming the scientific debate. 

Documentary filmmakers often work in obscurity for years before their films are completed, and their powerful stories can be told.  Semper Fi, which won in the Documentaries category, was a labor of many years for Tony Hardmon and his colleagues.  The documentary tells the story of one father’s quest for the reasons behind his daughter’s fatal leukemia. The father, a former Marine, learned that his family, while residing at Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, had been exposed to toxic chemicals that had migrated into the base’s drinking water.   The documentary chronicles the long simmering disaster’s impact on the health and lives of soldiers and their families, and the failure of army officials to alert families about their exposure.  Tony was at our table, and he brought his teenage daughter to the event.  One can only hope that she is proud of her soft-spoken father, and that his work may inspire her to follow in his footsteps.

Journalists are very good at doing awards ceremonies that are almost as glitzy, and certainly as lengthy, as the film industry’s.  But they do remind us that even in this time of uncertainty for the profession, hundreds of people continue to do good work, under difficult circumstances.  That’s reason enough for a little hope for the future.

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