McGuire on Media

Katherine Schneider Disability Journalism contest shows its real value.

I hated the idea. When Kristin Gilger, Associate Dean at the Walter Cronkite School told the board of the National Center for Disability Journalism a donor wanted to sponsor a new journalism contest for disability journalism I rebelled.

I railed about the difficulty of getting entries, the hassle of managing a decent contest and most vigorously argued, “the deteriorating journalism world does not need another $%^#$$^& contest.”

When it came time to vote I was the only nay vote on the board of the organization based here at Cronkite. That turned out to be a very good thing. Dean Gilger ignored my protestations, and my bad attitude, to ask me to be a contest judge. That judging experience converted me into a believer.

I still believe there are too many journalism contests. I am convinced the journalism industry needs less self-congratulation and more aggressive efforts to save itself. However, I am also convinced that the donor, Katherine Schneider and her $5,000 first prize will allow us to encourage outstanding reporting on disabilities from a fresher perspective.

Several of the 72 entries in the contest for the Katherine Schneider Journalism Award for Excellence in Reporting on Disability  are going to be put on the NCDJ website in our effort to produce a solid archives of noteworthy disability reporting. Reporters nationally will be able to find models and inspirations for their disability work. We also plan to mine the entries for several story ideas that deserve energetic follow-up.

The high quality of this year’s winners will certainly stimulate more and even better higher quality disability reporting in the future. I have judged well more than a score of contests during my career and my journey through the entries was far more rewarding that I expected. I was moved, provoked and warmed by these entries as much as I have ever been in contest judging.

As announced today, First Place went tp Broken Shield, written by  Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch. As I said in the official press release  about the contest winners: “Our runaway winner was a remarkable multimedia series called “Broken Shield.” With painstaking thoroughness and dynamic storytelling, reporter Ryan Gabrielson of California Watch, showed how a California police force designed to protect developmentally disabled patients failed to investigated horrible, violent abuse of patients. The stories make you mad and break your heart at the same time. And, most importantly they got real results.  Severely developmentally disabled patients are safer today because of Gabrielson’s work.”

Gabrielson’s gut-wrenching set of stories has been honored by others. When the series was named finalist for a Pulitzer, Center for Integrity’s Executive Director Robert Rosenthal said, “This series truly gave a voice to the voiceless and held the government accountable.” In that quote Rosenthal captured the sentiments of the judges perfectly.  Giving voice to the voiceless was one of the strong intentions of the contest.

The contest funder, Katherine Schneider, who has been blind since birth, hoped the award  would help journalists improve their coverage of disability issues, moving beyond “inspirational” stories that don’t accurately represent the lives of people with disabilities. “That kind of stuff is remarkable, but that’s not life as most of us live it,” she said.

The contest winner shone a light on the dark side of treatment of developmentally disabled adults and certainly went way beyond the ordinary sort of disability coverage. So did the other three contest honorees.

We awarded Second Place to a New York Times magazine piece  called The Autism Advantage, by Gareth Cook. The piece surprised us and seemed particularly appropriate to Katherine Schneider’s vision. It’s a story about a man who stopped focusing on what autistic people cannot do and built a successful business around what they can do. That story was inspirational and moved well beyond the ordinary.

Unlike any contest I have ever judged these contest entries came from TV, radio, online sites and even a college alumni magazine. Comparing pieces from different media was challenging but rewarding. A wonderful video story called Playing  by Ear done by Daphne Denis and Hoda Emam won an  Honorable Mention. The piece featured a young, blind New York man who aspires to play in the Paralympics in a special sport for the blind called goal ball. As I watched the charming, warm story I see Schneider’s vision fulfilled; the protagonist is a guy scrambling for athletic glory who just happens to be blind. He lives his life pragmatically and genuinely. The videographers captured that beautifully.

The other honorable mention went to a stunningly intimate and revealing profile of a deceased Dartmouth Alumni, Barry Corbet. Corbet was profiled in the Dartmouth Alumni magazine by Broughton Coburn  after his death. The story described a wonderfully authentic man who vowed to “become the most active gimp who ever lived.” Since that sounds like the irreverent kind of thing I have said, I was intensely drawn to that story.

The tremendous challenge of the contest was that so many stories were wonderfully executed and so many perfectly met the mission of the contest.  I think we found four winners that did both.