SDX 2000 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Television Reporting: Network/Top 40
Television Reporting: All other markets
By John Beale
Standing at a grave marker, surrounded by a half-dozen people I barely know, I put my camera down as my eyes welled with tears. Deep in the woods, a half-hour hike from the paved road, we had gathered to return home the 7-pound box of ashes of woodsman Marlin Miller.
Miller lived nearly half his 98 years here in western Pennsylvania alone, in a three-room shack without electricity, telephone and running water. I came to know Miller as "The Old Man;" that was the name locals used to describe a recluse whose lifestyle they could neither comprehend nor understand. Just out of high school, I set out to document Miller's solitary lifestyle, each year collecting visual snippets of his life, intending to some day fashion them into a story.
But standing with his ashes some 23 years later, my emotions had pierced the camera that for years I had relied on as a shield. The first-person feature story I wrote on Miller's life had been published in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette a month earlier, and nearly a hundred people responded to the article.
What was it about this story that evoked such an emotional response from our newspaper's readers? More than a year after the story was published, Post-Gazette photo coach Lynn Johnson helped bring the answer into focus.
"The thing we rarely do as documentarians is look back, away from our subjects into ourselves," she said. "Taking the time and personal strength to do this despite the daily photo rat race is important.
"In all of our careers, there are projects that require more of us in a deeply personal way. They invite us to use another, more committed, less arm's length layer of ourselves."
The many years spent working on The Old Man's story had offered an opportunity to peel away the layers. Marlin Miller became not only my subject; he became my friend. Dozens of trips over several decades made it possible to present a visual description of our relationship that offered a passionate sense of storytelling.
Good feature stories communicate with readers on a different level than other types of reporting. They engage viewers to think about and feel for their subjects. But there's an investment in doing this work. That price is in the commitment of the journalist who grabs hold of a subject and refuses to let go, as well as the resolution of newspapers that encourage their tireless efforts.
Experience has taught us that passion for a story is well worth the commitment. And the returns for the journalist and the publications are significant.
John Beale is a photographer at the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. His photos of Marlin Miller won the 1999 SDX Award for feature photography.
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Tom Hallman, Jr., The Oregonian, Boy Behind the Mask
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A nurse appears in the doorway. It's time to go, she says. Sam Lightner takes a deep breath and nods feebly. He lifts himself, his hands trembling slightly on the arms of the chair, and walks across the small pre-op waiting room to give his parents a hug.
"We love you, sweetie," says his mother. She pulls him close and kisses him softly on his left cheek, right on the mass that the waiting team of doctors will target. Sam looks at his mother through his right eye the only truly normal feature on his face. He blinks it once. A wink.
Last year, reporter Tom Hallman caught the attention of the people of Portland, Ore., when he told them about Sam Lightner "The Boy Behind the Mask." Lightner lived for 14 years with a birth defect, a bulging growth that horribly deformed the left side of his face. When the mass on his face suddenly grew, threatening his life, Sam and the doctors agreed to a risky surgery that might save him. Hallman went along on the family's difficult and dangerous journey.
To prepare for the four-part series, Hallman spent 10 months studying medical records, hanging out at the Lightner house, visiting Sam's friends and traveling cross-country with the family to doctor's appointments. Hallman told the story in narrative form, a genre where scenes are often recreated based on third-person accounts. But even in his most dramatic narratives, every quote Hallman used was one he heard himself.
Jack Hart, managing editor of The Oregonian, said Hallman's work continues to reach exceptional heights because of his quality reporting. "One key point not often comprehended is how committed reporting leads to trust, and how trust, in turn, opens doors to private spaces physical and psychological that reporters seldom enter," said Hart in his nomination letter.
That trust was evident when hospital staff tried to keep Hallman from Sam's surgery. The Lightner family made sure Hallman had the access he needed. They trusted him to tell their son's story.
Judges said Hallman's work was "a truly compelling and gut-wrenching story that is compassionate yet not sappy. Hallman's narrative about a horribly deformed teen and the doctors who undertook a very risky surgery to help him look more normal is feature writing at its best."
As the stories ran, reader response was immediate. The paper got more than 3,500 phone calls, letters and e-mails. On the Web, the story received an unprecedented 200,000 page views. Some of the responses:
"I could hardly wait for the paper each morning."
"For as long as it took me to read an article, I was oblivious to everything else."
"I have never been so deeply touched by an article."
"Sam has taught me and others what is really important."
"Your words ... grabbed me, held me and left me changed."
That may be the best compliment a reporter can get.
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Roy Wenzl, The Wichita (Kan.) Eagle, The Hero's Son
It was a story about one man and his father, but it was also about family, the value of ambition, and efforts to deal with the emotional baggage that everyone carries with them.
In "The Hero's Son," Roy Wenzl of The Wichita Eagle told of a little boy who lost his father to war and how, 40 years later, that boy now a grandfather finally came to terms with his dad's death ... and his life.
When he was 6 years old, Terry Asla said goodbye to his father Felix, a fighter pilot. His dad went to Korea to fight in the war. In 1951, his plane was shot down, but his body was never recovered.
For 40 years, Asla's family believed that he had somehow survived. His disappearance and the thread of hope that he might still be alive had profound effects on the younger Asla. Resentment grew when Asla discovered that his father had stayed in Korea past his required assignment, focusing on ambitious military career goals, rather than coming home to his family. That resentment caused a rift in Asla's relationship with his family and affected much of his life.
In a four-part serial narrative, Wenzl told Terry Asla's story, from his anxious days as a child waiting for his dad to return to some angry adult years. Wenzl documented Asla's struggle to know his father. Was he the hero the military said he was? Was he the ambition-driven man Asla imagined? Was he the friend his fellow pilots described?
Wenzl told of Asla's reaction when he learned his father really was dead, and readers shared with Asla the grieving process that had been denied for 40 years. And he documented Asla's attempts to talk with the pilot who killed his dad a person he discovered after the declassification of Russian records. Wenzl also documented Asla's reconciliation with his sister, whom he hadn't been close to for many years another product of his difficulty with emotional attachments.
Wenzl wrote the series, mingling flashbacks with present day. The past met the present as he conveyed universal themes of relationships and family.
Of his work, Wenzl said the reader response was considerable. "Though the sub-themes of father/son and ambition vs. family were evoked rather than overtly states, most readers 'got it,' which shows they were paying attention."
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Robert Lee Hotz, Los Angeles Times Magazine, Searching for Lost Honor
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For 60 years, that was the sum of it. There was no body to bury, no story to tell, just a photograph of a second lieutenant in the upstairs hall. When you are young, there are questions to ask. When you are old enough to understand, you discover the answers are beyond your reach.
The questions, when they finally did come, were not my own -- not at first. They were my mother's. Turning 80, she had so little time to seek an answer.
Seated at my computer, I look for answers in the most urgent way I know, by searching through the one billion pages of the World Wide Web. It can answer in seconds the questions that took decades to form.
But the Web, like memory, is oblique, triggered by chance associations. Like memory, there are gaps. Like memory, the Web rings true and false. So many of its answers are themselves questions.
Even so, I find something unexpected of bravery and shame. I find kinship with a man I can never know. I find too much about a man I wish I could forget.
Joan Hotz, the reporter's mother, had picked up a secondhand history book on Dunkirk, France, and read the following line: "More than 90 men of the 2nd Battalion of the Royal Norfolk Regiment were machine-gunned by an execution party led by Oberstleutnant Fritz Knoechlein.''
Is this, she asked her son, how my brother died?
''Searching for Lost Honor'' is Hotz's quest to solve a 60-year-old family mystery and discover exactly what happened to his uncle who perished at Dunkirk in 1940 as the Germans pushed the British into the sea.
"It was a challenge to be completely honest about such an emotional matter," said Hotz.
With no strategy, he turned to the Internet to begin a six-month search that transformed an electronic free fall in cyberspace into a mystery thriller. Moving from one site to the next, Hotz encountered death-defying escapes from the Nazis, family members trying to comprehend the war that shaped their fathers and gruesome recollections of war atrocities. As he read diaries and other accounts, Hotz learned of the culture that shaped those who went off to war in the '30s and '40s. And he came across images of a mass grave in a French barnyard and the man who ordered the executions there.
Through this bizarre set of circumstances, Hotz believed that he had, most likely, discovered the fate of his uncle. More important, he resolved the sadness and fear his mother had harbored for six decades. He also came to know the woman his mother had been before the war, something he could never find on the Internet.
"It's a well-paced and personal story with tasty insights and bits of philosophy," wrote the judges. "Creative use of parallelism tracking through the Internet and history at the same time helps Hotz turn a trek through the vast wasteland of the Internet into a fascinating piece of writing that brings history sharply into focus."
In the months since the story's publication, many have responded strongly to the story, both in the United States and Europe. Some were in the middle of their own efforts to exhume the past. Some were children of veterans. A few were veterans themselves. Hotz was moved to hear from several surviving German war veterans and their children who were "able to confront through the lens of this story, something about their own war experience or their parents' troubled past."
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Matt Rainey, The Star-Ledger, Newark, N.J., After the Fire
One of the most difficult parts of a journalists' job is interviewing victims of traumatic experiences. These people are already going through so much pain, and it's hard to justify why they should go through the added burden of sharing their stories with others no matter how important those stories are.
When Shawn Simons and Alvaro Llanos both freshmen at Seton Hall University were caught in a dorm fire, they suffered severe burns over much of their bodies. Burns covered 16 percent of Simon's body and 58 percent of Llanos' body. Both of their lives had changed in the course of one night, and they each faced a long, difficult road to recovery.
The last thing they must have wanted was to have their pain documented, to have a reporter and a photographer follow them through the next several months of frustrating trials. But when photographer Matt Rainey and reporter Robin Fisher approached the family about following their story for The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., the families agreed with the condition that they could terminate the story at any time.
As their recoveries continued and the journalists became closer to the families, however, the story became important to them.
"Over time, all felt strongly that their story should be told, and Fisher and Rainey became part of the students' extended families," wrote Jim Willse, editor of The Star-Ledger, in his nomination letter.
Rainey's contributions to the product are difficult to look at but impossible to disregard. His photos capture the pain, grief, hope and courage of everyone involved in the recovery process, from the victims to their families to the doctors that worked with them.
"It provoked a powerful reaction well over 1,000 readers made contact, nearly all of them applauding the strength of Shawn and Alvaro, and the dedication of their doctors, nurses and therapists," wrote Willse. "A few felt some of the photographs were too intense, but most understood that the strong images were essential to the story."
Just as the story became important for the families, it also became important for the journalists telling it.
"Spending nine months telling Shawn and Alvaro's story has been the highest of high points in my 13-year career as a professional photojournalist," said Rainey.
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Mark Urycki, WKSU-FM, Kent, Ohio, Remembering Kent State, 1970
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"Thirty years ago this week, four students were shot to death by Ohio National Guardsmen on the campus of Kent State University. That act, some say, marked an end of innocence for the student movement in America."
So begins Mark Uryki's production, "Remembering Kent State, 1970," for WKSU-FM in Kent, Ohio. The piece has no narration; it is told instead through the first-person accounts of eyewitnesses. Through interviews of people who were in Kent at that time, as well as background sounds recorded then, the program sought to take the listeners back in time to the events leading up to the shootings on May 4, 1970, and give them a feel for the unique political and social atmosphere of the time.
"I wanted to revisit the story of the Kent State shootings for the 30th anniversary on May 4, 2000," said Urycki. "I had done interviews with eyewitnesses in 1980 for a half-hour documentary, but had been disappointed with how much material was left out to meet the limit. Last year I was able to find new sources of audio from the 1970 shootings and incorporate them into a one-hour story."
Urycki went to great lengths to present the voices and sounds of this era as accurately and objectively as possible.
"I had boxes of 30-year-old tape to copy onto new stock... . One particularly priceless cassette had been recorded too quickly, so playback needed to be slowed down. In order to find the correct speed, I recorded a campus bell with modern equipment and then slowed the cassette tape until its 1970 recording of that same bell matched in pitch," he said.
Judges praise the format and direction Urycki chose.
"[Urycki] has removed himself almost entirely from the presentation and crafted a portrait of events using only actualities," judges wrote. "We hear diverse voices from recent times, as well as an incredibly rich melange of voices and sounds from 30 years ago. The result is riveting radio chilling, sobering, enlightening. It grabs the mind and holds on. 'Remembering Kent State' is neither apology nor indictment. It offers balance and context to the events described and does not attempt to reach a final 'truth' or conclusion."
"Despite the fact that I tried not to provide a single answer to the questions surrounding this historic event, I hope the story helped clarify the situation by presenting the perspectives and mindsets of the people involved," said Urycki.
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Keith Morrison (correspondent), Chairmian Gilmartin (producer) and staff, Dateline NBC, War and Remembrance
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Sometimes, a story just won't go away.
Luttrell, a Vietnam veteran, returned from the war with a photograph he took from the first Vietnamese soldier he killed in the field. It was a picture of the soldier and a small girl a girl that Luttrell assumed to be the man's daughter. For years, Luttrell kept the photo with him, a painful reminder of the impacts of the war.
Over the years, the photo became more than a simple reminder. "I really formed a bond, and especially with the girl in the photograph," he said.
But as long as he held on to the picture, Luttrell found that he couldn't quite let go of the horrors of the war and what he had been through. His wife urged him to leave the picture along with a letter to the soldier in it at the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall in Washington, D.C. Letting go of that photo, he thought, would be a way for him to let go of the pain he still carried with him.
Luttrell left the photo at the wall and went back to his home. But that wasn't the end. There was more to the story, and it seemed that it had to be told.
Luttrell's picture and letter were found and featured in a book titled "Offerings at the Wall." After seeing his picture in the book seven years after he let it go, Luttrell realized that there was more he must do. He had to find the girl in the picture. His first step was an interview with the St. Louis Post Dispatch for an article that he hoped could help his case.
That interview caught the attention of Dateline NBC producer Charmian Gilmartin. Gilmartin called Luttrell, and Dateline NBC followed his efforts to locate the girl in the picture 30 years after he had killed her father in battle. Through a bizarre set of circumstances, the story of Luttrell's search reached the girl, now grown with children of her own. She and Luttrell began exchanging letters, and Luttrell decided to return to Vietnam and return the photo in person.
Dateline told Luttrell's story in an hour-long piece that concluded with his tearful return to Vietnam. It touched the emotions of many viewers, especially those who lived with the experiences of war.
Gilmartin said the most difficult but rewarding part of producing the piece was the trip to Vietnam. The camera crew had to travel to a remote village three hours outside of Hanoi, and a good deal of preparation was required to make the shoot a success. But, according to Gilmartin, the emotion of the final visit made it worth the work.
"We arrived at the village just a few minutes ahead of Rich," she said. "As Rich walked up to Lan, and they saw each other for the first time, there was complete silence in the village, except for the sound of the pigs in their pen. When Rich and Lan touched hands and then embraced each other, it was truly an overwhelming moment."
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Claudine Wong and Don Schoenfeld, WNDU-TV, South Bend, Ind., A Miracle for Alex
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Journalists usually cover stories without knowing how those stories will end, but the risks are rarely as high as what WNDU-TV reporter Claudine Wong and photographer Don Schoenfeld encountered when they decided to tell the story of a very sick little girl.
The two met 3-year-old Alexandria Moody at a fund-raiser to pay for her medical bills. Alex had suffered from unexplained seizures since she was born, and, after years of failed medical treatments, doctors at Johns Hopkins Hospital in Baltimore, Md., told her family that a hemispherectomy could be her only option. The surgery which involved removing half of Alex's brain was risky, and her family had no guarantees about her survival or recovery.
The family agreed to let Wong and Schoenfeld document their difficult journey. The two journalists spent the days before the surgery with the family, and they went with Alex and her parents to Johns Hopkins for the surgery itself.
Being so close for such a stressful event was difficult for Wong and Schoenfeld. "There was no guarantee that the surgery would work, or that she would survive," said Wong. "The eight hours during surgery were very difficult, trying to respect the family's fears while documenting it at the same time."
Besides the difficulty of covering the parents during their child's surgery, the uncertainty of the story's outcome presented the pair with another obstacle: "We were nervous during the surgery that something might go wrong," Wong said. "This was a story of hope and courage and a family's strength. If surgery did not go as expected, and there had been fatalities during surgery, then we would have reevaluated this story."
But the surgery was a success. Alex returned home to her family, and her recovery in the year since has gone so well that she is scheduled to start kindergarten on time.
"The WNDU-TV report lets us know the members of the Moody family and understand the terrible, heartbreaking decisions they're forced to make," wrote the judges. "The writing is strong and concise. The result is powerful television journalism of the highest caliber that tugs at the heart and should leave every parent in the audience emotionally exhausted."
According to Wong, the story affected many viewers. The station heard from people with relatives who suffered from seizures, and parents called to say that they watched the two-part series with their children because it was inspiring.
"I think the story inspired people, educated them and reached people in our viewing area who didn't realize other people were going through such tremendous obstacles in their lives," Wong said.