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Awards of Academia: Peabodys and duPonts Honor the Real Reality

By Miri Hess

In its Fall 2001 issue, Nieman Reports, published by the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard University, explored the convergences and divergences of journalism and documentary, fielding richly rewarding essays from such leading lights as Robert Drew, Michael Kirk, Cara Mertes, Ellen Schneider, Robert Richter, Chris Hegedus and Michael Rabiger. Given that this publication sprang from academia--dynamic crucible for intellectual inquiry that it is--Documentary was interested in the perspectives of educators at journalism schools, and, in particular, the Columbia University School of Journalism and the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Georgia, which oversee two of the most prestigious honors in documentary and broadcast journalism-Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards and the George Foster Peabody Awards. Where do these leaders see the commonalities and the differences between the two disciplines? In terms of academia, how is documentary-making taught in the context of journalism? In the awards programs, are the criteria for judging or assessing documentary different from those for broadcast journalism? What are the criteria? Where do the two disciplines diverge?


Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards

Considered by many to rival the Pulitzer Prize in prestige, the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards favor relevant topics in today's breaking news. DuPont's wife, Jessie Ball duPont, paid tribute to the "journalistic integrity" of her husband by establishing the awards in 1935 and honoring the importance of news as a public service. What began as a tribute to radio expanded into television. Today, award winners represent a wide range of content-and may even include personal essay and historical documentaries.

At Columbia, in relation to documentary-style journalism, the faculty teaches various styles of storytelling--from short, Web-based videos to PBS-style long-form material. "The emphasis is still on finding good stories and telling them in an innovative way, but there is more flexibility in the format," says Abi Wright, director of the duPont and Chancellor Awards. "The duPont Awards also reflect these changes. Students graduate with the skills to work at a newspaper on their video pieces or to work with independent filmmakers, network news divisions and investigative teams." In 2009, the first Web-based duPont Award went to the multi-media production studio MediaStorm for Intended Consequences, about rape victims of the 1994 genocide in  Rwanda.

 "In the sense that the duPont Jury looks for innovative storytelling, and the school is teaching innovative methods of telling stories, the agendas do overlap," Wright explains. "A significant number of documentaries are honored every year by the duPont Awards."

June Cross, an Emmy and duPont Award-winning filmmaker and an assistant professor at Columbia, has served on the awards screening committee. As Columbia offers the discipline of documentary filmmaking within the larger journalism program, Cross explains, "Our students are learning to do a form of journalistic documentary which seeks to tell compelling, character-driven stories, even as the students strive to communicate information." A team of Cross' students from the class of 2010 collaborated Wombs for Rent, a documentary about a scam involving commercial surrogate mothers, which aired on PBS' Now.

The documentary style coming out of Columbia ranges from 60 Minutes-type magazine format to cinema vérité. Documentary and news are two separate categories, with news generally two minutes or less. News documentaries tend to be at least one hour or 40 minutes on the networks, allowing for commercial breaks. The committee does not generally divide the awards by topical category, but rather by market size or production entity. Submission categories include cable programming, independent productions and local radio, as well as programming out of small, medium, and major market stations.

The flexibility in the award criteria has yielded a diverse roster of winners: Martin Scorsese won duPont and Peabody Awards for No Direction Home: Bob Dylan (2005), and this year Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy and Dan Edge won a duPont Award for their short Pakistan: Children of the Taliban, which aired on PBS' Frontline/World. There can be an overlap between journalism and documentary in the awards assessment process. "The boundaries between ‘art' and ‘news' are primarily self-imposed," Cross maintains. "There is a line between docs that air on programs such as PBS' Frontline or Dateline NBC and social issue documentaries such as Joe Berlinger's Crude and Louie Psihoyo's The Cove. But even these could be eligible for some of the journalistic awards, particularly the Peabodys, measuring public impact of a work. These walls are mutable; they are standing by memory and tradition alone."


George Foster Peabody Awards

The Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at The University of Georgia administers The George Foster Peabody Awards, which honor producers of electronic media in radio, TV and cable, as well as corporate video, educational media, DVD/home video, Web and CD-ROM. The 16-member Peabody Board is comprised of educators, television critics, industry professionals and experts in culture and the arts. The awards are named after George Foster Peabody, a native Georgian industrialist, financier and benefactor of the University. Criteria are based on recognizing "excellence on its own terms." According to the Peabody website, "Each entry is evaluated on the achievement of standards it establishes within its own contexts." Awards are not given in categories, unlike the Academy and Emmy Awards; there are not a certain number of honors set aside for news, documentary or drama, for example. However, the panel has never awarded more than 36 awards in one year.

"There is only one criterion: Excellence," maintains Nathaniel Kohn, PhD, Grady College professor and associate director of the Peabody Awards. "So, in any given year, a Peabody might go to a news report from a local station in Denver, to a 60 Minutes segment, to an HBO documentary."

"Even if the submitter marks ‘News' on the entry form and the board remarks that it is more of a documentary, the jurors remind themselves that the category does not matter," explains Horace Newcomb, Grady College professor and the director of the Peabody Awards. "All the judges' decisions are made in face-to-face deliberations, allowing for true group discussion per entry and creating equality in all the awards. Judges even receive assistance from Grady College students in receiving their opinions. Students are a part of three-member screening committees comprised of two faculty staff and one student who view all entries and make non-binding recommendations to the Peabody Board. Students volunteer for this assignment and are chosen based on their critical skills. Grady College teaches critical thinking skills across our spectrum of courses that can be applied in any judging situation."

Since the school does not house a separate film school, Grady College does not offer documentary filmmaking as a separate class. However, students can chose to make documentaries in certain production classes. The school has offered documentary film in its special topic seminars as well. The Broadcast News concentration focuses on news writing, reporting, presentation, management, broadcast and ethics.

Whether there ought to be a clear distinction between documentary and journalism, or as the Peabodys and duPonts and their respective schools demonstrate, more of a fluidity between the two disciplines, is an ongoing conversation. Filmmaker Jon Else, who heads the documentary program at the University of California at Berkeley Graduate School of journalism, maintains, "I look at the issue not as an academic--I'm not--but as a documentary maker who finds himself nominated and not nominated for reasons which are almost always creatively and journalistically baffling; then I try to explain it to students.

"Should awards like the duPonts and Peabodys have a basic requirement or journalistic veracity?" Else muses. "You bet. Should all documentary awards? Probably, but it's tricky, because the schools which give the journalism-based awards all subscribe to the same basic standards of ethical journalism, fact-checking, etc., while the generalized documentary awards--IDA, Emmys, Oscars--operate in a standards-free environment. In the wake of nominations and awards going to ethically questionable documentaries, the motion picture academy has made some timid efforts at insuring veracity by having filmmakers submit a form that acknowledges re-creation, CGI and other devices.

"I've come to believe over the years that we as documentary makers have no choice but to accept some responsibility as journalists, simply because our clear intent is to make viewers believe something actually happened, something is true," Else continues. "In that sense, we don't differ from reporters, no matter how insanely inventive, subtle or flamboyant we make our films. When the lights come on, the audience will believe that certain things in a documentary are real and true, and responsibility for that lies with the filmmaker. You can't avoid it by saying, ‘I'm not a journalist.' That's what I teach."