Recent Cronkite graduate Athena Ankrah won a 2023 national student Edward R. Murrow Award in the Audio Feature Reporting category for a story highlighting the challenges encountered by Black farmers.
Ankrah’s podcast, “Black farmers concerned about new loan program,” delved into the impact of the 2021 American Rescue Plan for Black farmers. The plan aimed to provide 120% debt relief for Black farmers who had faced discriminatory lending practices by the U.S. Department of Agriculture. However, this debt relief was ensnared in bureaucratic red tape, leaving many without the assistance they were promised.
Ankrah, who graduated in spring 2023, reported this story last year for Cronkite News, the news division for Arizona PBS and one of Cronkite’s immersive professional programs, while still a student. The podcast premiered nine months ago.
“I was inspired to cover this story by looking at The American Rescue Plan of 2021,” Ankrah said. “I wanted to focus on stories that weren’t being covered or were being skipped over.”
“The farmers were just expressing that this was not what they were promised, and it was rewritten in a way that was very covert and it seems like you wouldn’t notice if you weren’t really looking for it. So this kind of thing piqued my interest, and I just started looking into the farming agency as a whole and was doing some historical research and saw a lot of records,” she said. “The U.S. Department of Agriculture has been referred to by critics as ‘The Last Plantation’ because of its pattern of systemic racism affecting Black farmers specifically but also farmers of color more broadly.”
Ankrah investigated Arizona’s food systems, talking to farmers and exploring farmers markets, co-ops and gardens. This experience sparked Ankrah’s interest in understanding the demographics of farmers in Phoenix, particularly Black farmers and other farmers of color. She also looked into the disparities between white farmers and non-white farmers, particularly in terms of profits.
Ankrah contacted farmers markets to connect with local farmers. She also conducted a pre-interview with the Stewart family, the central figures in the story, at their ranch in Douglas. The family was welcoming and provided a tour of their farm, showcasing their children’s responsibilities and learning experiences, she said.
Before meeting the Stewarts, Ankrah spoke with John Boyd Jr., the president and founder of the National Black Farmers Association, which marked a turning point in the project. After talking to Boyd, she felt compelled to present his perspective along with those of others in the community. This experience left Ankrah inspired and empowered to share their stories.
“I would love to do another story following this same beat or this same issue or group of people. I would love to work with them again,” she said.
Ankrah also garnered three additional awards for this podcast. She took third place in the Radio Feature Reporting Category at the national 2023 Broadcast Education Association’s (BEA) Festival of Media Arts, won a national Society of Professional Journalists 2022 Mark of Excellence Award for Radio News Reporting and finished as a finalist in the Hearst Journalism Awards Program’s Audio News/Features Competition.
Ankrah advises other journalists to create the stories that resonate with them personally. Just because a topic isn’t getting much coverage or hasn’t been tackled by other professionals doesn’t diminish its importance. She emphasizes that if you don’t see yourself or your community represented in the news, something needs to change, and you have the power to bring about that change.
“I am really grateful and honored to be recognized for this story. I hold myself to very high standards, so when I’m in the process of writing stories or working on them, awards and recognition aren’t my primary focus,” she said. “So, to receive this kind of recognition after the fact and validation from seasoned professionals in an industry I’m just beginning to break into is mind blowing.”
Ankrah attended the Edward R. Murrow Awards Gala on Oct. 9 at Gotham Hall in New York City. The gala is a celebration of the 2023 Edward R. Murrow Awards national winners. The Radio Television Digital News Association (RTDNA) has been honoring outstanding broadcast and digital journalism achievements with the Edward R. Murrow Awards since 1971. Among the most prestigious in the news, the Murrow Awards recognize local and national news stories that uphold the RTDNA Code of Ethics, demonstrate technical expertise, and exemplify the importance and impact of journalism as a service to the community.