Intrepid Reporters Honored at George Polk Awards Ceremony
By: REYNA IWAMOTO / MANAGING EDITOR
On Friday, April 14, some of the world’s most intrepid journalists were honored at the George Polk Awards Ceremony.
The George Polk Awards, established in 1949, was created by LIU to memorialize George Polk, a CBS correspondent who was killed while covering the Greek Civil War. For over 70 years, the awards have honored special achievement in reporting, placing an emphasis on investigative journalism.
Held at the New York Athletic Club in Manhattan, George Polk Awards curator John Darnton began the ceremony noting just how “tumultuous” of a year 2022 was.
“At the top of the list, of course, is the war in Ukraine. There were also environmental disasters, cryptocurrency meltdowns, mass shootings, monumental Supreme Court decisions, horrific problems of immigrants, the rise of autocracies, and deepening partisan divisions,” Darnton said. “Journalists covered it all, but not without cost.”
In 2022, 67 journalists were killed, which according to the Committee to Protect Journalists, is the highest number since 2018.
“The cost of truth-telling is as important today as it was in 1948 when George Polk lost his life while covering the Greek War. Long Island University is honored to be the home of the Polk Awards,” LIU President Kimberly Cline said.
The ceremony began with the presentation of the Sydney H. Schanberg Prize to author and journalist Alex Perry for his coverage of the 2021 ISIS attack on Palma for Outside Magazine. Established in 2022 by journalist Jane Freiman Schanberg to honor her late husband, this year was the second time this prize was awarded.
Following the awarding of the Schanberg Prize, each Polk winner was announced and called up to the stage to give their acceptance speech.
Notable moments during acceptance speeches included multiple tributes paid to journalists who lost their lives or have been imprisoned for their work.
The staff of the New York Times who won the award for foreign reporting took a moment during their speech to stand in solidarity with Wall Street Journal reporter Evan Gershkovich and condemn his wrongful arrest. Gershkovich, who covers Russia and Ukraine, was detained at the end of last month while on a reporting trip in Yekaterinburg, Russia, on espionage charges. The Wall Street Journal denies these allegations and President Biden along with various other news organizations and colleagues have advocated for his immediate release.
Terrence McCoy of the Washington Post was awarded the environmental reporting award for his work, “The Amazon, Undone,” a six-part series that examined the illegal deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. McCoy took a moment during his acceptance speech to recognize his colleague Dom Phillips, a British journalist who was killed alongside activist Bruno Pereira in 2022 while journeying through the Amazon. McCoy also read a message from Phillips’ widow Alessandra Sampaio, where she called on more reporters to continue working on these stories.
The Polk Award for foreign television reporting went to Correspondent Sharif Abdel Kouddous, Senior Producer Kavitha Chekuru and Executive Producer Laila Al-Arian for “The Killing of Shireen Abu Akleh,” a segment on Al Jazeera English’s Fault Lines program. Abu Akleh was a journalist working for Al Jazeera, covering a raid by Israel Defense Forces in Jenin when she was shot and killed, an attack that an investigation found to be deliberate. The team graciously accepted the award, but noted emotionally that they should not be winning the award because Shireen Abu Akleh should still be alive.
Another highlight of the ceremony was Josh Gerstein’s acceptance speech for POLITICO’s national reporting award. Gerstein, a senior legal affairs reporter, along with Alex Ward, Peter Canellos, and the staff at POLITICO received this award for their work revealing the then forthcoming decision to overturn Roe v. Wade and the behind-the-scenes ethics and influences on Supreme Court justices.
“Sometimes applying that level of scrutiny to an institution not used to receiving it can seem or feel unusual or even unprecedented,” Gerstein said. “I can testify to that from some of the looks or some glares I have gotten from certain justices,” he joked.
Gerstein said that the inspiration for these stories however was the idea that “Americans have the right to expect us to subject the courts, judges, and the justices to the same kind of rigorous reporting applied to other impactful institutions and high-ranking government officials.”
“Let’s hope this kind of reporting on the supreme court and the courts at large becomes more commonplace and less unusual — that would be a service to the American public,” Gerstein said.
Reporters from the Miami Herald won the political reporting award for their coverage of Gov. Ron DeSantis’ involvement in sending South American refugees on two planes from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard.
In an interview with Seawanhaka after the ceremony, Miami Herald investigative reporter Sarah Blaskey shared that winning a Polk Award has been an experience that she couldn't quite put to words.
“I couldn't have imagined being here a couple of months ago and I am truly thrilled and honored to be here,” Blaskey said. “I think it's especially important for us that come from local newsrooms, not these big well funded institutions, to be recognized with these awards.”
Local news has been on the decline in the U.S., with news deserts becoming increasingly prevalent across the country. According to a 2022 report from Northwestern University’s Medill School of Journalism, Media and Integrated Marketing Communications, it was found that around two local newspapers close each week in the U.S.
Blaskey shared that despite these closures, this award is meaningful in that local news is still being recognized for its contributions to the industry.
“I don't think you can have a robust democracy without local newsrooms… I also believe that journalists will keep doing what they do — we will cover the stories as they happen, we will lose sleep over those stories just as we always have because we don't do this for the money, we do this because of passion and because we care about our communities,” Blaskey said. “I think that's why I believe that there is a bright future for local journalism — because I know local journalists and they are not going to stop anytime soon.”
During the awards ceremony, there were, notably, three separate standing ovations from the audience for Evgeniy Maloletka, Lynsey Addario, and Theo Baker.
Maloletka, a Ukrainian photojournalist from the Associated Press, was given the war reporting award along with video journalist Mstyslav Chernov, video producer Vasilisa Stepanenko, and reporter Lori Hinnant for their reporting on the frontlines of Mariupol when Russia invaded Ukraine in early 2022. Maloletka was featured the night before the ceremony at the annual George Polk Awards Seminar, where he detailed his experience covering the war.
Addario, awarded the Polk Award for photojournalism, was also featured as a panelist in the Polk Seminar the prior evening, sharing the story behind her award-winning photo of the victims of a mortar that had narrowly missed her while reporting in Ukraine. During her acceptance speech, Addario got choked up and ended her speech to the second standing ovation of the afternoon, during which she embraced Maloletka after leaving the stage.
Baker, the final awardee to speak, accepted a special award for his work that revealed allegations that research written by Stanford University President Marc Tessier-Lavigne contained manipulated imagery.
Baker, the investigations editor at the Stanford Daily, is the youngest recipient of a Polk Award at just 18 years old. He began his speech joking with the audience, “If you're wondering why I’m up here, don’t worry I am too.”
However, Baker answered this question in the rest of his speech, detailing the various threats and anonymous letters he has received since reporting on this.
Recently, Baker published a story in which four senior executives at Genentech accused Tessier-Lavigne of covering up major falsification in Alzheimer’s research that was once considered “Nobel-worthy.” “That one made him a little upset,” Baker said.
Baker explained that the President then sent out an email to all faculty members saying the story was “breathtakingly outrageous and complete falsehoods.” Through correspondence Baker obtained, the story was later independently confirmed by the committee investigating Tessier-Lavigne.
“Doing this reporting has been nerve-wracking and isolating,” Baker said. “I lose sleep, I miss classes, I skip meals, knowing that a very powerful man is doing everything he can to undermine me. But I often look at this with eyes wide open; this is what I choose to do and I know it wouldn’t be done if I didn’t do it.”
Sam Catania, the editor-in-chief of the Stanford Daily, was also in attendance at the ceremony and told Seawanhaka that this award is “an incredible reminder of what student-journalism can do.”
“We’re incredibly honored to be recognized by the Polk Award Committee and I think what this means more than anything is that student-journalism is real journalism,” Catania said.
Closing out his speech, Baker said that student-journalists in particular are in very vulnerable positions when reporting on “a community they live in and belong to,” but that it “means the world” to have garnered so much support for his work.
“My incredible peers from across the country are doing brave difficult unsung work every single day,” Baker said. “Student journalists are a vital organ in holding power to account. I’m so proud to belong to this group.”
During a time when press freedoms are being heavily threatened, President Cline told Seawanhaka that while hearing the stories of so many journalists oppressed and killed, the George Polk Awards give hope and are a reminder of what must change.
“We have to make sure that journalism is staying at the forefront and that our journalists are protected and respected and honored,” President Cline said.