Hits and misses from the EWA awards finalists (2017)

The Grade Hed

There’s lots of great education journalism among the 2017 finalists – but lots missing, too, including some of the biggest stories of the year. Is that a problem? Yes.

By Alexander Russo

On Friday, the national association of education journalists known as the Education Writers Association (EWA) released its list of finalists for 2017 awards.

As in the past, the EWA finalists include a large number of great education stories. Sincere congrats to all the finalists – especially those whose work might not have received as much attention as it warranted thus far.

“I worry a lot about journalism but when I read stuff like this I feel the future is bright,” says Inside Higher Education editor Greg Toppo, who is currently president of the EWA Board of Directors. “Every time I judge awards, I’m overwhelmed with how much quality there is out there.”

But as you will see, some of the biggest stories of the year (and the biggest bylines on the beat) are missing from the EWA finalists for 2017.

And, in the absence of greater transparency from EWA about the process, there’s no obvious explanation why.

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Announced on Friday, the 54 EWA award finalists for 2017 are the product of roughly 340 entries in 16 categories.

The official goal of the awards competition are “to encourage and inspire more and better education journalism, and underscore the importance of excellent coverage and storytelling as a cornerstone of democracy and education.”

Sponsored by the College Board and the Edwin Gould Foundation, the awards are described as “the top education stories in online, print, and broadcast media across the country.”

Best as I can tell, the way the process works is as follows: Reporters and/or news outlets submit their own work for consideration. The judges choose among those submitted. It isn’t like the Oscars or Grammys where the judges can pick from nearly anything produced during a certain time period. But contest entrants don’t have to be EWA members, either. In that sense, the process is wide open.

As in past years, a lot of good work is represented here, both familiar and perhaps new.

There’s ProPublica’s collaboration with The Teacher Project called The Failure Track (by Heather Vogell, Hannah Fresques, and others), focusing on alternative schools to which so many kids are being diverted.

There’s WAMU’s What Really Happened at Ballou High School (by Kate McGee and Acacia Squires), which exposed the problems behind a “too good to be true” Washington, DC high school turnaround.

Another strong contender among the finalists is WBEZ Chicago Public Radio’s View From Room 205 (by Linda Lutton, Marianne McCune, and others), a deep look into the challenges facing poor students in a neighborhood Chicago school that was recently nominated for a Peabody award.

The finalists also include John Woodrow Cox’s Washington Post series, Children and Gun Violence, which recently won recognition as a Pulitzer Prize finalist and a Berger and Dart award winner.

The list includes intriguing and perhaps unexpected outlets, bylines, and story topics. A longtime favorite of mine, Viceland’s Last Chance High (by Brent and Craig Renaud) made the list. So did BuzzFeed’s Tyler Kingkade (for his work on Title IX among other things). The Chicago Reporter’s Kalyn Belsha, who was just named a Spencer Fellow for 2018-19, is a finalist. Bethany Barnes of the Oregonian is a finalist both for her excellent series Benefit of the Doubt and for her beat reporting.

Also on the list: outlets such as Fusion, the New Yorker, ESPN The Magazine, the Center for Public Integrity/Reveal, and the Marshall Project, along with familiar national and regional news outlets. Nonprofit education outlets are well represented, wining close to half of the 54 nominations, according to EWA executive director Caroline Hendrie.

 Disclosure: A handful of my columns for The Grade are among the finalists in the Opinion Writing category, along with the Washington Monthly’s Paul Glastris and St. Louis Post-Dispatch’s Aisha Sultan.

Raising Kings A Year of Love and Struggle at Ron Brown College Prep Audio Series Education Week

Raising Kings, the NPR/EdWeek collaboration that was among the most-discussed stories of 2017

Obviously, the judges picked some excellent work.

But the 2017 list of finalists is just as notable for the great work that isn’t on it.

Bylines, stories, and outlets that aren’t on the list include Erica Green’s steady and insightful coverage of Betsy DeVos for the New York Times, NPR’s deep series about school choice and vouchers, Benjamin Herold’s deep dive into personalized learning for Education Week, Alvin Chang’s amazing Vox story on segregation, and the Baltimore Sun’s series on integration (which recently won a National Headliner Award).

There’s nothing from NPR that I can find unless you count the story that Acacia Squires helped Kate McGee produce for WAMU. There’s just one Washington Post finalist, but not anything from its education teams, national or metro. The same thing is true for the New York Times metro and national education teams.

The EWA list doesn’t include “Big Buses, Bigger Problems,” the NBC5/KXAS-TV Dallas-Fort Worth investigation of a sketchy bus contract that just won a Peabody award. And it doesn’t include several education-related stories that just won top honors from the Society of Professional Journalists, including a story about grades being faked in Baltimore and the Associated Press series on schoolhouse sexual harassment.

Perhaps the most notable education journalism of 2017 – NPR and EdWeek’s podcast series, “Raising Kings” – is not on the list. And the most important piece of education journalism of the year, I’d argue – Emily Badger and Kevin Quealy’s New York Times story How Effective Is Your School District? – is also missing.

I’m not suggesting all of these should have won. But it seems strange so many are not among the finalists. It’s like an Oscars nominees list without, say, Meryl Streep or Daniel Day-Lewis, or a Grammys nominees list without Kendrick Lamar or Beyoncé.

Related coverage: Best education journalism of 2017

For some, the EWA awards aren’t much to think about – a small, beat-specific journalism contest that’s eclipsed by many other, larger journalism awards. But that’s the wrong way to look at them. Education is an important beat, and the EWA awards represent education journalism’s highest aspirations. This is work that people should aspire to.

Others might think it’s not such an important thing if the big-name organizations and most-discussed pieces aren’t among the finalists, given other award-related issues that could be addressed, such as the inclusion of a handful of left-leaning reporters and outlets among the finalists (but no right-leaning ones) or the relative lack of finalist journalism focused on important topics like education technology or education politics.

A few of you might think that talking about the EWA awards finalists is somehow demeaning to those who are included.

“I think that you should emphasize the positive,” Hendrie says. “I am concerned that dwelling on one person’s perception of what could or should have been on the list will in some way detract.”

But so many stories that stand out in my mind as the strongest of 2017 — or that have been shared broadly or recognized in other journalism contests – are not on the list. The absence of top stories among the award finalists is the most pressing and important among them. And I’m confident that the education journalism community can celebrate great education writing and reflect on the process through which it’s been selected at the same time.

This isn’t a new situation. A Pulitzer winner, a Pulitzer nominee, and a New York Times magazine piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that was among the most-discussed pieces of the year didn’t make last year’s list.

So, what’s going on?

This isn’t a new situation. Last year’s list of finalists also did not include some notable outlets and great stories. A Pulitzer winner, a Pulitzer nominee, and a New York Times magazine piece by Nikole Hannah-Jones that was among the most-discussed pieces of the year didn’t make it.

Such absences may not be unique to the EWA awards process, or all that important. “There’s definitely lots of good, lasting, important education reporting that’s not on the list,” notes Chalkbeat’s Philissa Cramer. “But that’s always the case with all contests.”

The absences aren’t indicative of anything that should be concerning, according to Hendrie. “The quality of this year’s entries was really remarkable,” she said in a phone interview. “We heard from the judges that it was a truly great year.”

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If national reporters and outlets who didn’t make the finals aren’t doing the best work, that needs to be considered. It’s a new world. The big outlets need to stop resting on their laurels and step up their games if they want to win EWA anytime soon, and readers need to be sure not to rely on the big newsrooms if they hope to get the best education news coverage that’s out there.

On the other hand, if national education reporters and top publications are disengaged from the one competition that tries to pull such reporters together, that’s also a reason to be concerned. Perhaps the big outlets and national reporters can’t be bothered to enter the contest, aiming instead for Pulitzers and Peabodies and the like.

Is it the lack of prestige? Is it the size of the cash awards? Is it the outside funders (who sponsor the contest and the conference)? If so, these are issues that need to be addressed.

One idea I’ve floated in the past is some sort of write-in category that would allow EWA members or contest judges to include work that wasn’t self-nominated. That would solve a lot of problems while maintaining most of the current process.

Another more dramatic change would be to make the contest open to any education story published during the year, Oscars-style, then have EWA members whittle down the list to a group of finalists, and let judges vote the winners. No more self-nominations. Everyone would know what stories were up for consideration.

A third possibility is that there’s something amiss with the EWA judging process that produces the list of finalists, in terms of how the judging is assigned, instructions given to the judges, and how their assessments are incorporated into the finalists and award winners.

One change that would almost certainly help is a lot more transparency. Right now, we don’t know who’s being considered, or even who’s entered the competition. We don’t know how the judges are instructed to evaluate the stories that they review, or what their ratings are.

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The winners are still being picked from among the finalists and will be announced next month in Los Angeles at the EWA national conference. It’s sure to be an exciting time.

Asked about opening up the awards process beyond self-nominations, Hendrie responds that the EWA awards are a competition in which people apply for themselves rather than being nominated. It’s “not the way we’ve done things.”

But EWA is always open to new ideas, says Hendrie. “Every year, we take a look at the process and ask if it’s time to make some changes.”

 

Related Posts:

Hits & Misses of This Year’s Education Writers Award Finalists (2017)

Hits, Misses, Snubs, & Mysteries Among This Year’s EWA Awards Finalists (2016)

 

ALEXANDER RUSSO (@alexanderrusso) is editor of The Grade.

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