A Year of Living Dangerously, for Journalists

The news of the last several months has prompted the duPont-Columbia University Awards to extend its deadline for submissions. 

Lisa R. Cohen
July 13, 2020

By the numbers, 2020 has been a rough year for journalists. According to the Committee to Protect Journalists, more than 470 incidents of aggression against the press have been reported during Black Lives Matter protests so far. Add to that life-threatening COVID-19 reporting, and an economy in free fall that’s causing massive layoffs and furloughs across newsrooms. Keeping the public informed feels difficult or dangerous. And that’s not even counting the President’s blistering war against the press.

It’s been especially tough for audio and video journalists, whose best work is usually face-to-face with subjects and at events, and now to document first hand the fast and furious news cycle that is our new normal.

The consequences of these challenges are in plain sight. On CBS News 60 Minutes, Lesley Stahl vividly described how she and several teammates were felled by COVID-19. CNN Reporter Omar Jimenez and his production team were arrested in Minneapolis on live TV in the wake of George Floyd’s murder there on May 29.  KUSA investigative reporter Joe Jojola’s camera was rolling when he was hit by police projectiles fired during Black Lives Matter protests in Denver, as you can hear Jojola yelling, “We’re press!” These are all distinguished news organizations with a track record of original, critical reporting at the risk of personal safety. All are past Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award winners.

As the director of those awards, which are presented for outstanding audio and video journalism, I know the obstacles that these journalists face. As a former network news producer, I’ve experienced some of them myself. So our mission, to celebrate the important work they do and to recognize publicly the price these courageous men and women pay, has never felt more essential.

Over the course of the duPont-Columbia University Award's nearly 80-year history, we have given "Silver Batons" for covering war zones, from Edward R. Murrow’s World War II radio reports to the 2020 award for PBS NewsHour’s Jane Ferguson, who smuggled herself into Yemen. We’ve given them out for stories about pandemics and health crises, from NBC’s 1980s AIDS coverage to Fusion’s 2017 award for tracking drug traffickers in the jungles of Mexico, breaking news of fentanyl’s scourge. And we’ve honored disaster coverage, from hurricanes to earthquakes to 9/11.

But we have never seen journalists faced with a year where so many crises were unfolding  at once.

That’s why, for the first time in recollection, we extended our deadline to July 14 in the face of an unprecedented flood of requests for extensions. With lives at stake, entering an award obviously isn't the first priority, but in fact winning a coveted Silver Baton is important to careers, can inspire and motivate the often under-appreciated work and sets standards for the profession.

My vantage point has allowed me a glimpse into some of the extraordinary challenges facing these journalists. Reporters are calling to say they can’t make our deadline because they are editing submissions from a personal desktop in their child’s bedroom, compiled from news stories being broadcast from someone else’s dining room, coverage that was filmed while dodging bullets. They’re emailing to say they have such huge amounts of  COVID coverage that they aren’t sure how to physically comb through it all to prepare an entry.

One winner recently spoke at an online event I moderated for our journalism students. As a network news senior producer, he told of his daily management decisions, with a staff diminished by recent layoffs and COVID-19 stricken producers: How to cover dangerous protests or stories about overrun hospitals, or should he send his crews out at all? With what protective gear? Would they then be out of commission afterwards in two weeks of quarantine? And those are journalists working at highly resourced news organizations. So many of the exceptional, committed men and women we meet at our annual awards ceremony are local or independent journalists, working on a shoe-string budget.

So this year, at a time when reliable news and information has never been more important to our health, our communities and our democracy, let’s remember the risks reporters across platforms are taking every day to bring us the news. And the commitment to news gathering that benefits our free society, the work we honor every year here at Columbia. 


Lisa R. Cohen is the director of the Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards, and an adjunct professor teaching broadcast and video journalism at Columbia Journalism School.