Prize breeds

Spring is the season for… journalism prizes! Watch your local newspapers for a veritable orgy of award announcements. Journalists give themselves more prizes than do the actors and entertainers they increasingly resemble. Most newshounds publicly deny that they “write for the prize,” but they go into spasms of self-congratulation when contest results come down. And who can blame them, poor dears? Polls show the majority of the public mistrusts, scorns, and/or hates the media, so maybe it’s understandable that journalists crave approbation from prize judges.

The sheer profusion of journalism awards is staggering. The trade magazine Editor & Publisher publishes an annual directory of awards. The latest edition—75 pages long!–includes 245 listings for national and international awards, 72 for regional awards, and 64 “honorary” award categories. Most groups bestow multiple awards, so individual awards total in the thousands. And many include hefty cash prizes. These range from the American Society of Colon and Rectal Surgeons National Media Awards (two $1,000 prizes, plaques, and expense-paid trips to the society’s annual meeting) to the Pulitzer Prizes ($6,500 prizes in 13 categories, all awarded at a banquet in New York). In between are dozens more: the Asian American Journalists Awards, Environmental Journalism Awards (sponsored by Bacardi Rum), Gerald R. Ford Awards for Distinguished Reporting on the Presidency, Gay and Lesbian Alliance Against Defamation Awards, Investigative Reporters & Editors Awards, Miller Lite Women’s Sports Journalism Awards, National Association of Black Journalists Awards, Stuttering Foundation of America Awards, and the Quill & Trowel Garden Writing Awards.

Have journalists gone prize-crazy? Note The Seattle Times’ incessant house ads listing past prizes and its fervent pursuit of more. In a column last year (“Panic in the Press,” Eastsideweek 8/6/97), we critiqued the Times’ “Fear in the Fields” series about purported hazards from agricultural fertilizers containing recycled materials. We contended that the series, packaged to create a sense of danger, was tailored for journalism-award committees. We weren’t alone: A longtime state-agency employee who followed the issue told us it was the first time in 20 years he’d seen a newspaper so transparently pursuing a prize.Now it’s payoff time: Duff Wilson, lead reporter on the series, just won the National Headliner Award and the Goldsmith Prize in Investigative Reporting. The Times touted these with a four-column local-section front-page story (3/15), “Times reporter wins 2 national awards,” complete with Wilson’s mug shot. The Pulitzer Prizes will be announced soon; we hear Wilson is a finalist.

But consider a few questions the prize judges probably didn’t ask: Did “Fear in the Fields” spur sweeping legislation and regulations? No—Times horn-tooting aside. In “Governor Signs Bill Regulating Fertilizer” (3/19), Wilson crowed: “Gov. Gary Locke has signed the nation’s first law to limit potentially toxic metals in fertilizers,” adding that Locke called it “an historic piece of legislation that will make Washington the national leader in fertilizer regulation.” The story noted (as did every previous story) that the action was spurred by the Times’ disclosures.

THIS IS CLEARLY spin to give the appearance of maximum impact. The law that finally passed the Legislature is actually quite mild. After hearing all the facts,legislators wisely resisted a more extreme approach favored by alarmists overreacting to the Times

series. Many environmentalists condemned the measure. “I’m very comfortable with the bill,” says Pete Fretwell of the Far West Fertilizer and Agrichemical Association in Spokane. “When all the pushing and shoving was done, the industry got something we can live with. I feel like we’ve won.”

Did the Times encourage a constructive public-policy debate about comparative risks? No. The whole series was based on the premise that there’s grave danger in the fields and possibly in our food—despite virtually no evidence of that. It repeatedly noted that while there are “no conclusive data to prove a danger, there are none to prove the safety of the practice.” Well, duh. It’s scientifically impossible to prove that anything is completely safe. Wilson’s stories never acknowledged that scientific truism, nor offered any comparison of relative hazards. Is fertilizer recycling more dangerous than, say, having kids deliver newspapers? Just wondering.

Was this a paperwide crusade? No. The Times’ editorial board, whose members kept their cool despite the fear mongering rampant in the newsroom, calmly noted that industrial wastes are used in less than 5 percent of all fertilizers, and while further research may be warranted, drastic action is not. A Times editorial (7/10/97) correctly noted “no cause for alarm.”

If the Times wins a Pulitzer Prize for this series, says Fretwell, a former broadcast journalist, “it would cheapen the Pulitzer in my mind.” Maybe Wilson should shoot for the Quill & Trowel Award instead.

John Hamer and Mariana Parks are president and executive director, respectively, of the CounterPoint Center for ReMEDIAtion,an independent nonprofit media think tank, and co-editors of CounterPoint, a media-critique newsletter. Callthem at 1-888-306-DOGS or e-mail or