Opinion and Forefront

LANOSGA: Why the media obsess over awards

May 4, 2013

LanosgaThe news business is in the thick of contest season. You’ve probably noticed.

It’s hard to avoid the steady stream of announcements of winners, from grand national journalism competitions to the myriad regional, state and local contests. The awards are so abundant that they sometimes seem to outsiders like little more than a mass exercise in self-congratulation.

That perspective isn’t entirely without justification. Journalists (including this former one) are keenly aware of deadlines, requirements and the best strategies for winning. Many news organizations have contest coordinators who spend at least part of their year singularly dedicated to preparing entries. And budgets for entry fees can easily mount into the thousands.

The sense of pervasiveness of journalism prizes may have something to do with the fact that journalists tend to publicize them more prominently than awards in other fields, of course. But there’s little doubt that we live in an era of aggrandizement that actually started around the turn of the 20th century with the introduction of the Nobel Prize. The Pulitzer followed shortly after.

Prizes, in journalism or any other field, involve the granting of status. Winners sometimes receive money, but intangible rewards such as esteem from colleagues and increased job mobility are also highly valued. It’s all part of what Harvard professor James English calls “the economy of prestige.”

It’s easy to be cynical about journalists giving one another all these awards. At their best, however, prizes reflect and encourage quality journalism in a profession that has few other means of conferring legitimacy on its practitioners.

Journalists aren’t licensed like other professionals such as doctors and lawyers—nor can they be under the First Amendment. So standards of quality are largely voluntary and self-policed by the industry.

As we well know, the industry doesn’t always do a good job. From the too-frequent eruptions of plagiarism and fabrication to the shoddy reporting of breaking news such as the Boston Marathon bombings to simple misspellings and grammatical mistakes, there is much to criticize in the news media.

That’s one reason contests play a more important role in journalism than they do in other occupations. It is far from a perfect process, but the annual recognition of quality journalism through prizes serves a vital function in encouraging the good work being done in the news business.

And the most recent round of awards reveals there is much good to celebrate. The Pulitzer Public Service Award, for instance, went to the Fort Lauderdale Sun Sentinel for an investigation of reckless driving by off-duty police. That project beat out a series by the not-for-profit California Watch documenting beatings, torture and rape in homes for the developmentally disabled.

Closer to home, journalists from around Indiana were honored by the Indiana Professional Chapter of the Society of Professional Journalists for stories on a wide range of significant matters such as official conflicts of interest and misuse of tax dollars. A broadcaster at WTWO-TV in Terre Haute, Patrick Fazio, won the First Amendment award for his reporting on an unconstitutional Illinois law that banned citizens from recording audio of police officers.

These stories are important not just for journalists, but for the communities where we all live. And for every winner, there are numerous runners-up striving to produce quality journalism that matters—and yes, journalism that might just win a prize.

At a time when the news business seems besieged by bad news, isn’t it OK once a year to pause and recognize the good stuff?•

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Lanosga is an assistant professor of journalism at Indiana University and president of the Indiana Coalition for Open Government. Send comments on this column to ibjedit@ibj.com.

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