SDX 2001 Awards Gallery
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Over 100,000)
Newspaper/Wire Service (Circ. Under 100,000)
Television Reporting: Network/Top 25
Television Reporting: All other markets
Good features use narrative
By Travis E. Poling
Good features that grab a reader and donít let go have much in common. The stories have anecdotes, telling quotes, scene setting and tight, lively prose.
But what sets top-notch feature writing apart from the pack of promising prose is the narrative thread. There are two threads of a story – one for the reporting process and the other that makes it into print.
When a reporter sees a glimmer of promise in a potential story, he or she grabs those obvious reporting threads and starts pulling to reveal details, secrets, motives, emotions. That is good reporting.
The second thread is the narrative thread that weaves the whole story together from beginning to end. That is good writing.
This is pretty basic stuff, but itís not easy to execute.
Poring through dozens of entries in this yearís Sigma Delta Chi Awards competition, there was little chaff to separate from the wheat. Strong reporting, good ideas and solid writing characterized most of the stories.
But it was the execution of the narrative weave that made the best stories grippers.
A strong, well-written piece can easily fall apart when the story skips around and abandons a strong narrative. Pull on the narrative thread. If it comes out in pieces, it is time to rethread the needle and start again.
Travis E. Poling is a business reporter for the San Antonio (Texas) Express-News.
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Julie Sullivan, The Oregonian, Portland, Ore., This is How We Live
The old Mercedes chugs east on the Tualatin Valley Highway, Donna McCue at the wheel clicking off her to-do list: Call the twins’ teacher, finish a college essay, call the doctor about explosive behavior.
McCue remembers sensing, rather than seeing, a driver next to her staring. She glances in the rearview mirror.
GET IN YOUR SEAT BELT!
Behind her, Renee, 6, has released her buckle, slipped off her cotton pants, pulled her T-shirt over her head and crawled into the car’s back window, her bare body wedged against the dusty glass.
With this narrative tone, reporter Julie Sullivan uses intimate details to tell the story of Donna McCue, a mother dealing with the everyday pressures of the world as well as raising three autistic daughters. Two of her daughters are twins and are severely affected by the inadequately studied brain disorder.
For six months, Sullivan followed the mother through car rides, potty training episodes and attorney meetings.
“This is how we live” covers all aspects of Donna’s life, not just the twin girls. Sullivan’s storytelling never misses a beat with the mother’s emotions; her narrative included the smiles and tears that ride Donna’s rollercoaster life.
Donna and the girls are moving to a new house. Eighteen months after separating, Ray and Donna are fighting bitterly over their divorce settlement. Donna sells her diamond earrings, paintings and furniture to buy groceries. She uses her mortgage money to pay her divorce attorney, and the foreclosure notice on the house arrives March 2.
A crisis counselor advises Donna to relinquish the twins to the state of Oregon to “save” her older daughters.... The oldest daughter, Liz, rocking through adolescence, moves East to live with her father. “She lost her mom to grief,” Donna says.
Throughout the story, Sullivan slips in statistical and medical information regarding autism and the possible causes and treatments for the disorder.
Between getting the girls to school in the morning and putting them to bed at night, Sullivan ends with Donna’s reflections on another day of raising her children:
Tomorrow when the twins wake up, they’ll have autism.
She says this aloud. She loves them unconditionally, will care for them as long as she can ....
Jesse A. Hamilton, Yakima (Wash.) Herald-Republic, Murders in a Small Town
Text from this entry
Yakima-Herald reporter Jesse Hamilton tells the story of a triple homicide in a small town like a classic mystery novel. The report is broken down into chapters, each revealing a bit more than the last, but not so much that a reader can set it down and be satisfied.
“Not every story lends itself to this approach, but it’s amazing how many stories really do have threads that can be presented this way – even inside daily stories,” Hamilton said. “And it’s sure a heck of a lot easier to read a story, for me, when it reads like a story and not a laundry list of facts.”
The story follows a rural police department for two years while it searched for murder clues in a triple homicide case. Hamilton includes backgrounds on the convicted killers, giving insight into what could trigger two men to kill three people – one of them pregnant.
The stories interwove the “laundry list of facts” into details and the thoughts and frustrations of sources. The series connected the first facts of the case into the murderers’ first months in prison.
“My newspaper had covered this story for three years, in the way that most homicides are covered,” Hamilton said. “We reported the basics of what happened, way out on the fringe of our circulation area. We covered the court cases and eventual guilty pleas of two men – father and son – that killed three people on New Year’s Eve 1998. It was after the routine coverage of those pleas and automatic life sentences that I realized the story was still alive in my head.”
Hamilton said he had a difficult time explaining his idea to run a three-year anniversary special on the case, but editors trusted his judgment and gave the series six pages in two issues.
Hamilton said, however, that he could have filled much more.
“Though my editors might believe I threw everything and the kitchen sink into these stories, it’s far from true,” Hamilton said. “There were dozens of little asides that I painfully ignored ... my descriptive ability couldn’t fully describe the scene in the victims’ apartment. I’ll never forget the crime scene and the autopsy photos, but there’s no way I could express the horror in words.
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Peter Tobia, Philadelphia Inquirer, Caught in the Struggle and Strife: Images from Pakistian
The number of Afghan refugee camps on the Pakistan border multiplied in the weeks following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11. The United States’ retaliation against Al Qaeda members in Afghanistan was imminent, forcing the natives of the land to retreat to safe harbor in the neighboring country of Pakistan.
Peter Tobia was about to leave New York for Philadelphia when he received a call to go to Pakistan. He was asked to photograph the “struggle and strife” of those affected in the war-torn region.
“I felt it was my responsibility as a photojournalist to accept the assignment in Pakistan,” wrote Tobia.
When he arrived, Tobia found anger, poverty and pain that could only be expressed with pictures. Many of the images portrayed Anti-American protesters raging through the streets of Pakistan. One shows a woman seriously deformed by a rocket attack in Afghanistan. Another shows a little girl sitting next to what appears to be an innocent lump of clothing – but turns out to be her mother shaking from malaria beneath a blanket.
“This photo story carries the viewer into the daily lives of the people of Pakistan and the thousands of Afghan refugees who poured over the border as the U.S. moved to retaliate for the attacks of Sept. 11,” wrote the judges. “There is a dramatic range of emotion throughout the photos, from the fierce anti-American protesters to the sad faces of newly orphaned children.”
From groups of hundreds, angrily waving their arms in protest, to gun-yielding boys and young men, Tobia captured the prevalent mood of the region in vivid and gripping detail. When the time came, his photographs helped finish the story that reporters began telling in words.
“Reporters and photographers do different things,” wrote Tobia. “What makes a good word story doesn’t necessarily make a good photograph. Trust yourself, your instincts and your news judgment.”
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Gene Lower, Slingshot Photography, Sports Illustrated, God Plays Through
Upon first glance, Gene Lowers photograph of a golfers follow-through before an eerily purple and lightning-filled sky appears to be just a fluke; a lucky frame taken by a photographer who, along with the subject, had no business being out in a lightning storm of that magnitude.
Lower lives in the Southwest and encounters many lightning storms during the late summer months in the region. His fascination with taking photographs of lightning has led him to chase numerous storms. enlarge above image
Wow. Amazing shot, wrote the judge. Im disappointed this won and I had to return it. I wanted to frame it and put it on my wall.
The opportunity for this shot arose when an unexpected lightning storm moved into the area where Lower and his friend, Steve Sakraida, were playing the Lone Tree Golf Course in Chandler, Ariz.
Immediately, Lower saw it as a chance to capture a lightning photo using something other than the normal scenery in the background. He admits that he doubted whether the idea would work. Similar storms in the Southwest travel very rapidly, so Lower knew his time was limited.
I believe that the very small window of opportunity is what makes lightning photos so exciting, wrote Lower. You have to be ready and up for the challenge.
As the storm came closer, Lower began to question the safety of golfing swinging long, metallic objects in an electrical storm.
He finished his shots and was excited when he picked up his film the next day. I knew I had something hot, he wrote.
Despite the risk the lightning presented, the real challenge became finding the right outlet in which it could be published. Lower was pleased when Sports Illustrated ran the photo as a two-page spread in the lead section of the following weeks issue.
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Javier Lizarzaburu, BBC-Spanish, Cruces (Crosses/Crossings)
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In an attempt to improve relations between the United States and Mexico, Javier Lizarzaburu conducted a series of radio interviews called “Cruces”, which translates to “crossings” or “crosses.”
Lizarzaburu’s four 13-minute programs were broadcast via the radio and Internet during July 2001. He cast each one in its own format and mood.
“He and his organization gave the project the time worthy of an issue that has been present for decades and will not go away soon,” wrote one judge.
The first program introduces the different types of immigrants in the area. The interviews include a person trying to cross the border illegally into the San Diego area. He is one of the 300,000 Mexicans that are believed to try to cross into the United States each year.
Asked what he would do with the money he earned from working, he said: “I spend part of it on things I need while in the U.S., and the rest I send to my family in Mexico.”
The second program is about commerce and drugs between the two nations. It is believed that 90 percent of all the drugs that enter the United States are transported via ground. Different politicians in the area are asked for their opinions on the matter.
A main epicenter of that activity is Tijuana, which Lizarzaburu describes as “one of the cities with the highest level of consumption of heroin in the world.”
The third program addresses the relationship between Tijuana and San Diego as neighboring cities. Lizarzaburu asks a lady shopping in a downtown market in Tijuana what she thinks of her northern neighbors.
“Well, we have to have a good relationship with them,” she said. Asked what she thinks of the United States as a neighbor, she replied: “I like the lifestyle there, the type of government they have.”
The fourth program explains how confrontation has been a big part of the history of U.S.-Mexico relations. Richard Gonzalez, the U.S. consul in Tijuana, points to war and political conflicts over territory for the tension between the countries.
“This is like a pain, a wound that is always in the mind of Mexicans,” he said. “That the U.S. won the wars and took with them, ‘unfairly,’ such valuable territories like California, Texas, Arizona. And maybe they think this was an unfair aggression and because of that, they are poorer.”
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Tom Brokaw, Rebecca Haggerty and Lisa Britton Parker, Dateline NBC/NBC News, The Lost Boys
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In an early conversation between producer Lisa Britton Parker and the subjects of “Lost Boys,” she mentioned that she had recently been married. One of the men being featured in the program asked innocently, “How many cows did your husband pay for you?”
The “lost boys” are a group of orphaned, teenage refugees from Sudan who left the harsh conditions of their homeland in the hopes of finding peace and freedom in the United States. From their first plane ride to finding their first job, this one-hour feature takes its audience through the young men’s introduction to American culture.
There has been an ongoing war in the Sudan between the Muslim government in the North and the black Christians and others in the oil-rich South. In the late 1980s, the boys’ villages were attacked and ravaged by militias while they were away herding cattle.
When they received word about the destruction to their homes, the boys ran for their lives. They began a four-year journey that took them over 1,000 miles through northern Africa. They survived on a diet of leaves and muddy water. Finally, their voyage ended in a United Nations camp in northern Kenya, where they were left with no family, no home, no future and very little hope.
“It was a sight, really, that I’ll never forget,” said photographer Wendy Stone of her first encounter with the “lost boys” in 1991. “It was just an unending line of kids as far as the eye could see. I mean, they were just children.”
That’s when the U.S. government stepped in, giving 3,500 Sudanese the opportunity for refuge and a new life in America. For four months, Dateline NBC followed small groups in both Rochester, N.Y., and Seattle to get a taste of how young men with so little get acclimated to Western culture.
And there was plenty for the boys to learn. They were seeing for the first time conveniences that Americans take for granted – running water, telephones, a stocked meat counter at the grocery store.
Those in Rochester worked at a Wegman’s grocery store while going to school part time. Lake Ontario seemed to present a new fear for those used to the dangerous lakes of Africa. One young man said to reporter Tom Brokaw, “We were thinking there were crocodiles.”
The group in Seattle enrolled in a five-week certified nursing assistant training program while taking a high school equivalency class at night.
“Their schedule was about 6 a.m. until 10 p.m. that night,” said Linda Knodle, the boys’ nursing teacher in Seattle. “I’d find that they’d be falling asleep in the middle of class.”
As Tom Brokaw said during the program, “Nothing in their lives prepared them for a job in the United States.”
That seemed to be the consensus among the “lost boys” as well.
“You work hard, America will look like heaven,” one of them said. “But when you stay with your hands or arms folded, you look at everything, you don’t work, then America will look like hell.”
The boys were surprised at the role women play in the United States. One asked, “In this country do women really speak to men first?”
The one constant in the lives of the African boys has always been religion. Devout Christians, they believe that faith is the only way that they have been able to travel so far and survive so much.
“I am a lost boy in the world,” one of them said. “But I am not lost with God.”
Judges were impressed with the scope of the feature.
“It was a moving story of an international issue with national repercussions,” they wrote. “It showed a commitment to journalistic integrity beyond our borders by everyone involved – including the network.”
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Janet Gardner, Pham Quoc Thai, Nicole Domenici and Len McClure, The Gardner Documentary Group and Independent Television Service, Precious Cargo
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After the fall of Saigon in April 1975, confusion and mayhem pervaded the war-ravaged country of Vietnam. Following the Vietnam War, President Gerald Ford set aside $2 million in federal funds for a program known as “Operation Babylift.”
Approximately 2,700 children, most of whom were orphaned and biracial and some of whom were handicapped, were flown on 19 flights from Saigon to the United States and Europe.
The first flight out of Saigon crashed upon take-off. Of the 300 adults and children aboard, 154 died. Many more planes full of children were flown out of the country within a week. Those arriving in the United States were placed with foster families and raised as Americans.
“Precious Cargo” traces the return of six young Vietnamese adults who were adopted by Americans after the war. The cameras followed them to their birthplaces as they searched for their roots.
Janet Gardner, who directed and co-produced the piece, is an award-winning documentary producer known for her work on events in Southeast Asia. She gained an interest in the area from her time covering post-war Vietnam for a pair of New Jersey papers and as a contributor to The New York Times, Boston Globe and The Nation.
It took three years to raise the funds needed, produce and promote “Precious Cargo.” Independent Television Service and the Gardner Documentary Group had researched the topic for about a year and hoped to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War with the documentary.
“The shoot itself was challenging,” wrote Gardner. “We had little control over the schedule. Vietnamese bureaucrats were not enthusiastic about it because foreign adoption is a sensitive subject in Vietnam, so we had to sidestep them in our quest for a Vietnamese point of view.”
The film follows several of the now 20-something Americans on a reunion voyage sponsored by Holt International Children’s Services. Holt ran one of the numerous Vietnamese orphanages deluged with children during and after the war.
During the war, some Vietnamese mothers were producing at least one baby per year. Their parents would raise the baby until it was two or three months old before being forced to send them to an orphanage.
The subjects in “Precious Cargo” returned to the orphanages where they grew up 25 years earlier. Some of them are reunited with the nuns and nurses who cared for them as children. They view first-hand the poverty and over-crowding that forced them from their homeland years ago.
“No psychologist that we know of has studied this large group of adoptees,” wrote Gardner. “Our sampling was small, but it did show the adjustment problems of the first generation of Vietnamese adoptees and the adoptive families.”
“We just knew that we were American, and that made us different,” remembers one woman who had been abandoned as a child.
The film follows the subjects to the War Remnants museum, where they are confronted with the anti-American, “anti-Babylift” sentiments of their hosts.
“It’s kind of overwhelming,” said Patricia Snider. “Going back to find your roots is kind of like having amnesia and you don’t know where you’re from. Coming back here is like finding yourself again.”
Gardner said the American families that took in these children made a significant impact on American social structure.
“Their adoptive parents were pioneers in a movement, beginning in the mid-1970s, that has grown to redefine the American family by embracing these biracial and handicapped children as their own,” she said.
“We would argue that these pioneering parents changed the way many Americans think about the nuclear family in a profound way.”