In case you missed it, the 2017 Online Journalism Awards took place on Oct. 7 in Washington D.C. If you are not familiar, this ceremony was launched in May 2000, and, according to its website, it is “the only comprehensive set of journalism prizes that honors excellence in journalism around the world.” Not surprisingly, it comprises the best examples of digital storytelling around, and if you enjoy viewing journalistic pieces or plan to go into the profession, the entries are a must-see. The year 2017 was a special year for the awards, as the entries include heart-stirring, curiosity-sparking multimedia pieces that are not only driving real change, but also changing the way journalism is scooped out and presented. Let’s see how.
The General Excellence on Online Journalism for the Medium Newsroom category included ProPublica and the San Antonio Express-News as finalists, with Le Temps earning the gold. ProPublica was notable for pioneering the idea of collaborative journalism, in which “1,100 journalists (took) part in a nationwide effort to cover voting rights, election administration, and whether the 2016 election was ‘rigged.’” The San Antonio Express-News impressively used diverse methods of journalistic expression, including mapping software, animated graphics and live stream interviews with reporters about their work. Le Temps proved to be above and beyond, as they demonstrated a value of educating and serving readers through video explainers, engaging visual stories and video tutorials for how to detect fake news. They even set up their own artificial intelligence project called Zombie, which mines Le Temps’ content, gives it scores on quality based on audience interaction and matches evergreen articles to today’s hottest topics. Now this is what I call a futuristic journalism practice.
The Knight Award for Public Service’s finalists were “Death Behind Bars” by the Reno Gazette-Journal, “Fire and Death in Canada’s First Nations” by the Toronto Star and “Toxic Armories” by The Oregonian/OregonLive, with the winner being “Doctors & Sex Abuse” by the Atlanta Journal-Constitution. “Death Behind Bars” truly shined light on the underrepresented topic of mental health and death in jails. Most people overlook jail inhabitants to begin with, as they are sequestered from society. However, the Reno Gazette-Journal humanized this group and demonstrated that they should receive the same mental health care services as anyone else. I applaud them for that. “Fire and Death in Canada’s First Nations” also brought attention to an unnoticed, broken system, where indigenous Canadian inhabitants were dying from house fires, and a resulting indigenous fire marshal’s office was created. “Toxic Armories” spurred change for toxic armories to close and for guard leaders to pay for cleaning them up, validating the investigative reporting that was done. The winner, “Doctors & Sex Abuse” did a phenomenal job at identifying more than 3,100 doctors who were sanctioned after accusations of sexual misconduct since 1999, finding emotional stories of victimized patients and building an information-rich website that includes illustrations, video interviews, case documents and data visualizations. They 100% deserved to win.
The David Teeuwen Student Journalism Award winner for the large newsroom category was “Cuba’s New Wave” by the University of North Carolina School of Media and Journalism. The students expertly took photos, shot videos, and wrote stories that bring Cuba to life. The finalist, “Death Denied” by The Medill Justice Project takes an in-depth look at the controversial death row inmate Thomas Zeigler, despite constant obstacles that come with students diving into serious matters of life, death and legalities. In the small newsroom category, the winner was “City of Smoke” by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism. Peter Bittner traveled to Ulaanbaatar in the winter (with temperatures below -35 C) to capture its pollution and public health crises, capturing visuals that drive these points home. The finalist, “A Town Divided” by the UC Berkeley Graduate School of Journalism, tells both sides of the issue of a mining project in Southern Arizona, using a narrative approach that elicits emotion.
“Turning Tides: The Story of the Salton Sea” by The Desert Sun ad USC/JOVRNALISM won the Pro-Am Student Award. It visits a receding lake that could lead to California’s largest environmental disaster, and virtual reality immerses viewers into the ins and outs of the story. The finalist was “Surviving the City” by BBC News, the International Reporting Program, The Guardian, Toronto Star and the University of British Colombia. Students produced energetic, moving multimedia pieces that depict the true struggle of international citizens faced with living in underdeveloped urban areas.
The winner for Excellence and Innovation in Visual Digital Storytelling (small newsroom) was Yvonne Brandwijk and Stephanie Bakker’s “Future Cities,” which I enjoyed immensely. Its photographs and videos are vivid and energetic and it is exciting to go through – I felt like I was taking a vacation right on my laptop. “TruckBeat” by AIR: Finging America and WUOT was also enjoyable, as it brought intimate access into Southern Appalachia’s health issues of obesity and addiction through real stories. It is also pretty cool that they recorded it out of a bread truck.
“TruckBeat” was also the winner for Topical Reporting (Small Newsroom). The first finalist was
“Opioid Coverage” by STAT, who produced the powerful multimedia package “Dope Sick,” a six minute-long piece with “8,000 words, 20 videos, 2 texted conversations and 15 scene-setting photographs.” I feel that this was more impressive than “TruckBeat,” as it was more comprehensive. The second finalist was “Sold Out” by The Texas Tribute, which dived into the problem of child sex trafficking in Texas by “interview(ing) more than 90 people, review(ing) three-dozen criminal cases and attend(ing) two full sex-trafficking trials.” The production of this project cause lawmakers to approve $3.2 million to rehabilitate child sex-trafficking victims over the next few years. For this feat, I believe “Sold Out” should have won the award.
The winner of The University of Florida Award for Investigative Data Journalism (small/medium newsroom) was “Trial and Terror” by First Look Media and The Intercept. They created a useful database of terrorism prosecutions and sentencing information, and the website has an interactive, intuitive visual interface that makes it easy for anyone to understand. The first finalist, “Boomtown, Flood Town” by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune brings awareness to weather disasters in Houston and the negative economic and developmental issues they bring. The last finalist was “Shoot to Kill” by The Baltimore Sun, in which reporter Justin George and four college students were impressively “able to wrangle, uncover and contextualize more information about the increasing lethality of shootings than researchers have ever been able to put together.”
In the Online Commentary category, the first finalist was “Honoring Those Lost to the Oakland Warehouse Fire” by KQED, and it elicits strong emotions by creating intimate profiles for those who passed away in the Ghost Ship warehouse fire. The second finalist, “Make It Stop” by The Boston Globe brings awareness to the horrific act of gun violence and makes a call to action that stands out among other commentaries that are full of the same, tired rhetoric. The third finalist, “Vox First Person” by Vox refreshingly shows “the human side of the news,” and its storytelling is authentic, honest and creative – this is my most favorite kind of journalism, one that has a reliance on humanity and soulful elements, rather than piles of facts. The winner, “Race/Related” by The New York Times includes a powerful video of people reading racial tweets directed at them, video stories of individuals, and its series, “Who Me, Biased?” is being used in classrooms to teach them about implicit bias, which I think is an excellent use for this topic.
And there you have it – the highlights of the 2017’s most impressive moments of journalism. After going through these, I discovered that modern, valuable journalism is about investigating tough topics, eliciting calls to action and pushing through obstacles to get to the heart of serious matters. But more than anything, I realized that a timeless journalist is someone who performs what he/she is most gifted with, and that is telling a story.