4 Takeaways for Storytellers from This Year’s Peabody Awards

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A record was set when the 73rd Annual Peabody Awards were presented on Monday.

Forty-six recipients — the largest number of Peabody winners in a single year — were honored.

After reviewing the script for this year’s awards ceremony, emcee Ira Glass (whose This American Life also took home an award), told the crowd there was no way around it — it’d be a long show.

This year’s winners were chosen by the Peabody board from a pool of nearly 1,100 entries, ranging across many forms of media. Television shows like House of Cards, Scandal, and Key & Peele were honored. Movies and documentaries were included. Awards also were given for web-based media and news coverage.

Ahead of Monday’s presentation ceremony, Peabody Awards director Jeffrey P. Jones penned an article on Variety.com about this year’s winners.

“So why the unprecedented number of winners?” he wrote. “Is there more excellent content than ever before? The answer is yes. The volume of quality storytelling has increased exponentially in the digital era.”

Peabody Awards are not presented for specific categories. Rather, the sole requirement for winning a Peabody is excellence in storytelling.

A few of this year's 46 Peabody Awards recipients

A few of this year’s Peabody Awards recipients

PR Newswire is happy to be a longtime sponsor of the Peabody Awards. After looking at the list of winners and attending Monday’s ceremony, here are four takeaways we observed for journalists, bloggers, and other storytellers:

Don’t discount long-form journalism

In a media environment that champions concise news reports and short attention spans, this year’s Peabody Awards demonstrated that long-form journalism continues to engage audiences.

This American Life won a Peabody for its Harper High School project, which embedded three reporters at the Chicago school for five months. Their reporting resulted in two episodes that looked at how faculty and students are affected by and work around rampant gun violence at the school.

This is another example that there is no preset “perfect” length to a story.  Instead, the people or events in your story are going to drive how much time and space should be dedicated to it.

While there is a place for short content and editing excess, a piece that digs into a complex topic’s many facets will better serve the audience. Don’t hesitate to take the extra time or break your story into multiple parts to do it justice.

Good digital storytelling integrates traditional tactics 

Interactives, infographics, intricate UX design. Digital storytelling and the variety of methods we use to tell  our stories have blossomed. However, it’s tempting to get so distracted by shiny new things that we forget the basics.

Many of this year’s Peabody winners bridged the gap between traditional storytelling best practices and new technologies.

A Short History of the Highrise was a joint effort between The New York Times and the National Film Board of Canada.  The interactive documentary’s design was reminiscent of a vintage pop-up book, featuring rhymes and accordion-like navigation that weaved together photographs, short films, minigames, and audience-generated content. The final product gave thoughtful context to 2,500 years of “vertical living and issues of social equality in an increasingly urbanized world.”

Whereas Highrise examines urbanization, another Peabody winner Hollow focuses on rural McDowell County, West Virginia and the dramatic population reduction it’s undergone since the 1950s.

The web-only experience immerses you in the small county – featuring residents’ photography and personal stories and tracking the factors that caused it to peak at 100,000 and drop to its current population of 22,000 resilient individuals. Although the documentary focuses on one county, it’s a story that applies to many American communities.

For a look into how Hollow’s team approached the interactive storytelling process, check out this interview between MIT Open Documentary Lab and Hollow’s user experience designer Jeff Soyk.

Collaborative storytelling spreads out the burden

Budgets and personnel are stretched. This is nothing new.  But the demand to produce intricate, indepth, and beautiful looking stories is high.

Because of this, many newsrooms are finding success by partnering with other media outlets or companies whose specialties and resources fill in the gaps.

With Highrise, the National Film Board of Canada was able to mine The New York Times’ archives for photography that complemented its videos. The exposure and reach that naturally comes with a Times piece also helped the project’s creators put out a call for reader-submitted images and commentary from around the world.

Louisiana Purchased put the collective resources of WVUE-TV and NOLA.com/The Times-Picayune to use for an investigation into the state’s campaign finance system.  Together, the newsrooms dedicated thousands of employee hours to exhaustive reporting they would not have been able to contribute on their own.

This research revealed unethical and criminal practices as well as the startling fact that less than one percent of donors were responsible for nearly a third of Louisiana’s campaign contributions.  The Peabody Awards also cited the piece’s “unusually accessible” writing and graphics as a reason for the honor.

There’s always more story to tell

In 2013, the Center for Investigative Reporting launched its public radio program Reveal with an examination of the Department of Veterans Affairs’ prescription painkillers problem.

As CIR explains on its blog: “The report used internal VA data to expose a 270 percent increase in the number of opiate prescriptions issued at Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals, a phenomenon that had contributed to a fatal overdose rate among VA patients that was nearly double the national average.”

Reporters, data reporters, app developers, and radio and video producers collaborated on this project which resulted in House committee hearings and VA officials promising to reduce narcotic painkiller prescriptions and investigate alternative therapies.

However, lawmakers were skeptical, and as recently as this month, CIR reported on a VA audit that indicates opiate prescriptions and a lack of alternative therapies are still an issue.  It’s CIR’s persistence and follow-through that make its veterans coverage award-worthy.


In his Variety article, Peabody’s Jones embraced the digital era’s influx of content: “Our task in the future for the Peabodys, which are based at the University of Georgia, will prove even more difficult as a result of these trends. The good news is that, as a jury, we get to watch, listen, and engage with such amazing stories and make the case why these are stories that matter to us, as citizens and consumers.”

The cable network Pivot will air the awards ceremony on June 1.

Videos, photos, and other content that aid in storytelling are available for free on PR Newswire for Journalists. Members of the media and other content creators can register here for full access.

Amanda Hicken is a media relations manager with PR Newswire. Follow her at @ADHicken for tweets about the media, comic books, and her love of Cleveland.

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