April 25, 2021

Earlier this semester, I was honored to be a judge in the Dan Rather Medal for News and Guts, a new award for professional and student journalists originating at the University of Texas.

I emailed Dan Rather to ask him about the awards, and he said the goal was to honor not just the end product, but the work it took to produce the journalism.

“Long, hard work is often a hallmark of good journalists; it almost always is with exceptional and great journalism,” he wrote. “My experience has been that the general public and even many journalists don’t grasp this truth. Anything we can do to remind people, especially ourselves, of it is good for the profession.”

He said you have to be “totally committed” to the craft to do it well.

“The effort behind the bylines is how stories are told and, hopefully, how readers and communities are served for the greater good.”

Below are links to the works of the finalists and winners. It’s a laundry list of great journalistic investigations. I hope you can use them in class.

Student finalists:

  • Winner: Care & Capital by Madeleine Davison, Syracuse University/Newhouse School of Public Communications/The Daily Orange
  • City Manager by Myra Wu, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism/Beacon Project
  • 61%, group project, Syracuse University/Newhouse School of Public Communications
  • They Watch Us Closely by Sofia James, USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism/Beacon Project

Professional finalists:

The student winner, Madeleine Davison, graduated from Syracuse in May 2020 and works as an intern at the National Catholic Reporter, a nonprofit independent newspaper that covers Catholic institutions and broader social justice issues. She said her project began as a class assignment in a course at Syracuse called Social Justice Reporting with Data.

“The prompt was to find a story based in publicly available data and then report it out from there, so there was essentially full freedom to pick any dataset,” she wrote me last week.

Davison said she started seeing the story come together after an initial analysis revealed a massive shift in nursing home ownership over time — nursing homes that had been public and nonprofit were being sold to private companies.

“When I saw the correlation between for-profit ownership and higher rates of complaints, I realized that these sales could have negative consequences for residents,” she said.

Personal experiences with older loved ones fueled her desire to tell this story.

“Nursing home residents are often forgotten or seen as disposable, and I think journalists have a duty to call out exploitation and amplify the voices of elderly and vulnerable people and their caregivers and loved ones,” she said.

She suggested that other young journalists should keep their eyes open for opportunities to investigate local issues.

“I’d also say to take your time with people you speak to about sensitive or traumatic topics,” she said. “Give people, especially those who are vulnerable or not used to talking to the media, as much power as possible in the conversation. Ask them to tell you stories about their loved ones before the tragedy, or to show you family photos. Guide the conversation gently and with compassion. Let them decide what they feel comfortable publishing and check in with them again before you go to print. People are always more important than the story.”

She also had advice for you, my dear readers.

“To professors and advisers, I’d say open-ended assignments can be amazing opportunities for students if they’re given the tools and support to succeed. I really appreciated the guidance I got along the way — my professors gave me the skills to do the work and helped me hone the story and find areas where I needed to do additional reporting. And they encouraged me every step of the way, which helped me overcome my insecurities about doing such a big story as a student and convince me it was worth getting the project across the finish line.”

Rather said that Kathleen McElroy, director of the journalism school at UT, was instrumental in making the student awards a priority.

McElroy said, “Student journalists are doing amazing work and deserve every opportunity to be recognized. … (they) are facing the same hurdles as professional journalists while butting heads with administrators, government officials, trying to go to school, internships and all the travails of being a student.”

Rather said his humble beginnings played a role in making sure students were honored as well as professionals. As the first in his family to attend an institution of higher learning (Sam Houston Teachers College, now Sam Houston State University in Huntsville, Texas), Rather said his professors were dedicated educators who gave him all the knowledge he was capable of absorbing at the time.

He said today’s students are better than he ever was.

“They’re so smart it makes your head hurt,” he said. “The work of student journalists is no less worthy than professional journalists and deserves to be recognized as such.”

I couldn’t agree more.

Poynter College Media Project

A quick Poynter plug: Don’t forget to tell your student newsrooms about this opportunity to work with Poynter for support of a major project or investigation. It’s free and comes with a $1,500 grant.

Diverse headlines

One valuable way that you can reinforce diversity, equity and inclusion in your classroom is by sharing journalism about, by and for diverse communities — not just stories that are predominantly by and about cisgender white people. Here are a few examples I saw this week.

College headlines

Great journalism to share with your students

Poynter Internship Database

This week, we’re featuring one of our own: MediaWise is looking for a summer intern! From its listing: “MediaWise, a groundbreaking digital media literacy project of the Poynter Institute in St. Petersburg, Florida, is seeking a full-time summer intern who excels at video editing and production, shines across social media platforms, and embraces the importance of rooting out mis- and disinformation. Our ideal intern will be a key member of our fast-paced team as we work quickly to teach people how to find reliable and accurate information about vaccines, COVID-19, politics and other trending social media topics.”

The Lead

Student journalists at The Western Front at Western Washington University in Bellingham, Washington, couldn’t find clear policies for ethical and accurate protest coverage, so they wrote their own. They talked about the process in this week’s The Lead and include suggestions for other student news organizations looking to do the same.

Subscribe to The Lead, a newsletter for student journalists, and encourage your students to do the same.

This week’s Professor’s Press Pass

In this week’s Professor’s Press Pass, we examine the case of defendants in the Jan. 6 Capitol riots who claim they were there as journalists covering a story. We ask students to consider that age-old question: Who gets to call themselves a journalist, and why?

Resources for Journalists

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Barbara Allen is the director of college programming for Poynter. Prior to that, she served as managing editor of Poynter.org. She spent two decades in…
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