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One-on-One with Polk's John Darnton

By REYNA IWAMOTO | Staff Writer

John Darnton | Photo by Librado Romero

No one knows better than John Darnton, the significant role in which the media play in society. Following the pandemic’s spread in America, Darnton, the curator and face of one of the country’s most prestigious journalism prizes, LIU’s Polk Awards, reminds the public of the purpose and importance of a free press in America.

Established by LIU in 1949 to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent who was murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war, the Polk Awards honor special achievement in journalism, highlighting investigative and enterprise reporting.

Based on the submissions for this year’s awards, Darnton said that by far, coverage of the pandemic was the area in which most organizations were interested in. Due to the continued presence of COVID-19 in America, the 2021 George Polk Awards Webinar on April 8 will bring together three Polk winners and experts on the virus to discuss and address questions that surround the pandemic.

The panel, appropriately named The Press and the Pandemic: Filling the Information Void, will not only inform the public, but also serve as another reminder, alongside the Polk Awards themself, of the importance of the press, especially following the continued discredit of the media by the Trump Administration.

“We hope to help restore faith in the media by pointing out strong examples of investigative work that the media have done that have benefited the whole country,” Darnton said.

A two-time Polk winner himself, Darnton has been the curator for the awards for the past 12 years. A well-established journalist, Darnton wrote for the New York Times for over 40 years until his retirement in 2005. Darnton said that a few years later in 2008, the previous curator, Sidney Offit recommended him to the president of LIU at the time, David Steinberg, as his replacement.

“He had a couple of recommendations, but of them, [David] chose me and I readily said yes,” Darnton said.

As the curator, Darnton is the head administrator for the awards, responsible for ensuring the awards follow the right path, are given to the best journalists available and everything functions smoothly.

Alongside Darnton, there are 12 other judges that also preside over the awards, convening over multiple meetings to analyze and identify the most outstanding work done during the previous calendar year in all platforms that deliver news.

The 2021 Polk winners, announced in late February, are journalists from news organizations ranging from CNN to the Minneapolis Star Tribune.

“This year was an exceptional year because of the pandemic and we knew going into the selection process that the COVID-19 story was a major story unlike any of us have ever seen,” Darnton said. “There were 592 submissions altogether in the Polk Awards this year and a quarter of these were about COVID-19.”

According to Darnton, the judges analyzed the work of reporters within every aspect of the pandemic, including who raised the initial alarm of COVID-19, scientific analysis of the virus, the Trump Administration’s response to and control of the pandemic, and how the pandemic has targeted specific groups of people such as Black Americans and frontline workers.

Throughout their meetings, the judges trim down the selection, talking with one another until they reach a consensus. Darnton explained that as the pool of work narrows, the decisions become much more difficult.

“When you get down to about 100, it becomes difficult to make a choice because there still is a lot of good investigative work and enterprise reporting,” Darnton said. “Sometimes by not awarding an article or a series of articles that we think is not up to the mark, we also make a statement.”

Such analysis and decision-making are also what Darnton claims are the most important things he has learned from his experience as the Polk Awards curator.

“I’ve learned how the dynamics of a group can make for a good decision and how news strikes people differently,” Darnton said. “It is possible to realize that an article you thought was a sure winner suddenly has defects that someone else pointed out, or an article you may have glossed over is raised up and put back in the center of the discussion by someone who has a different eye.”

From spending over a decade as the curator for the Polk Awards, Darnton said that this experience has provided him with a “valuable perch” from which to see many of the major news stories and trends in the news industry.

“This year out of the 592 submissions, I am able to see what topics most interested the news organizations and by far it was the COVID-19 pandemic,” Darnton said.

The second area that most interested news organizations was the resurgence of the civil rights movement and analysis of not just the violence demonstrated by police departments, but their function in society as well. “What stood out was the movements in the streets along with the pandemic,” Darnton said.

Following an eventful year in media, with an impeachment and a presidential election, and as America moves forward in a post-Trump Administration era, Darnton expressed that the Polk Awards, along with other journalism prizes such as the Pulitzer Prize, “serve to highlight the importance of journalism, especially when it’s under attack.”

Michael Jordan, a visiting professor of Journalism at LIU and former judge for the Polk Awards explained that the awards are a reminder of the role in which the media play as a “watchdog,” holding officials accountable for their words and actions.

“Especially after 4 years of relentless assault by President Trump and his supporters, including attacking the media as the “enemy of the people,” it is important for American society to know and be reminded that everyday there are decent minded journalists working hard to expose the truth and to ensure that there is accountability for actions taken on our behalf,” Jordan said.

On April 8, the George Polk Awards Webinar will feature 2021 Polk Award winners David Culver, Helen Branswell and Ed Yong as panelists, and will be moderated by two-time Polk winner Laurie Garett.

Culver is a Beijing-based reporter for CNN who covered much of the Coronavirus pandemic in 2020 in Wuhan, China. Culver received the award for Foreign Reporting for giving most of the world its first look at the dangers of COVID-19 and the Chinese efforts to control the spread of the virus.

Branswell, a journalist at the science and medical news site STAT, received the award for Public Service. From January to December 2020, Branswell tracked the spread of COVID-19 in 161 articles, covering all aspects of the virus.

Atlantic reporter Ed Yong won the Science Reporting award for his analysis of the factors behind the spread of COVID-19 throughout the U.S. and the Trump Administration’s response and attempts to curtail it.

These three panelists whom Darnton calls experts in different aspects of COVID-19, will be coming together for the first time during a time when people may still have many questions regarding the virus.

“We figured early April will be a time when people will need a dose of true information about the virus,” Darnton said. “Where do we go from here, how do we defeat this virus, what are the measures we still need to take, and what are the chances this will go away soon? All of these questions will be raised at a very critical time.”

The webinar will take place from 6-7:30 p.m. and is free and open to the public. There will be a Q&A session with the reporters following the panel discussion. You can register for the event here.

“I would encourage everyone who wants a clear vision of what is likely to happen in the immediate future about the virus to tune in and to ask questions,” Darnton said.

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