An Award Judge’s Secret Selection Criteria

When Joann Rodgers sits down with other judges to select award-winning stories, she is always amazed by how well everyone agrees with one another. “The really good stories just pop out,” she says. “As in any craft or profession, you sort of know it when you hear it or read it or see it.”

Rodgers, herself the winner of numerous prizes during her career as a correspondent for the Hearst newspapers, executive director of public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine and author of six books, has been judging various awards for 35 years. And she’s no longer surprised by the easy agreement. “It’s a lot of intangibles” she says. “It’s well, did it hold my attention? Were there lovely turns of phrase? Did you feel comfortable in the hands of this writer? Was there good storytelling? Was there vibrant language and vocabulary? And then, why are you telling me this?”

Although many of those characteristics might not sound surprising — they include the basic elements of good journalism — there are a few that some judges look for first and foremost.

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Novelty, Fieldwork and Prose

CASW President Alan Boyle, a veteran journalist who currently judges the National Academies Keck Futures Initiative Communication Award, often favors stories that are novel. He argues that stories covering unexpected results or counterintuitive findings are more likely to rise to the top of the pile than writing on topics he’s seen time and time again.

That said, stories that cover popular advances can still rise to the top — so long as they consider a different angle. Take Dennis Overbye’s New York Times story on the Higgs Boson. Although it was published on a well-known discovery — and followed an initial flood of stories on the topic — it was a successful dive into the travails that went on behind the scenes, Boyle says. And that merited the National Academies Keck Award in 2014.

Such a story could only be uncovered with on-the-ground reporting. “It’s something that you wouldn’t be able to just write from your desk, like I do with 99 percent of my stories,” Boyle says. “But something where someone actually gets out there and is particularly able to describe the act of discovery.”

Rodgers adds that in recent years there has been an increased sensitivity to diversity as a mark of quality in journalism. She looks for stories that not only include action in the field, but also diverse voices.

Not only does fieldwork help journalists uncover stories that are novel, it also plays a crucial role when journalists return to the desk — enabling them to place readers within the unfolding action. “Stories that stand out are those that do sound almost like a great piece of fiction, except of course they’re true — with a great character and a story that unfolds with a narrative,” says John Carey, a former long-time senior correspondent for BusinessWeek who has organized and moderated the judging panel for the annual Evert Clark/Seth Payne Award, now bestowed by CASW, since its inception in 1989.

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Not that there aren’t exceptions to this rule. “Sometimes you get too much [vivid writing] at the expense of the science,” Carey says. “You say ‘well, that’s a wonderful story. It had me riveted. But it just didn’t really explain the science to me.’ So that’s how some stories can founder.”

With that in mind, Carey encourages journalists to also submit news stories. Although these stories tend to be a little more straightforward in nature (often lacking those aforementioned techniques) they can still be head and shoulders above the other submissions. After all, Malcolm Gladwell originally won the Clark/Payne award in 1990 for four news stories because the judges were impressed by how clearly he was able to explain the arcane, Carey says. “So that won out over something that might have been more creative.”

Boyle agrees that news stories can certainly win awards — but again, he highlights the need for field reporting. “If someone happens to be on the ground when aliens land and write a 700-word-story about that, I don’t think that would go straight into the garbage pile,” he says.

Life Beyond the Printed Page

There are many, many stories that immediately land in a judge’s trash bin. “There are two sins a writer can commit,” Rodgers says. “One is to bore the reader. And the other is to upset the reader with confusion — confusing language, lack of storytelling craft, segues and transitions that are clunky. When I’m reading something, I like to feel that I’m in the hands of somebody who is going to carry me along and not confuse me. It’s not that I don’t want to have to think, but I don’t want to struggle.”

While stories should read with a certain amount of ease, award-winning science reporting cannot be naive, misleading or inaccurate. Rodgers notes that judges are typically selected for their expertise in a beat, allowing them to ensure that the award-winning story includes up-to-date context and does not sensationalize results. If a story overstates conclusions or misuses statistics, it almost always drops to the bottom of the list, Rodgers says. “To me, that’s just sloppy journalism and doesn’t belong there.”

Additionally, judges often do a fair amount of research in order to better assess the stories under consideration. Sometimes that might cause a story’s stock to drop — say, when the judges learn that the story does not accurately represent the science. But at other times the research might cause a story’s stock to rise — say, if the judges find that the story not only portrays the science accurately but includes nuances and complications seamlessly.

In Awards, Impact Wins

On a similar note: There is an imbalance in the topics covered by award-winning science stories in that basic science and mathematics are often left in the dust. Our post on the topic argues that is because awards competitions look for an obvious impact on society. 

Meanwhile, Rodgers always looks for the impact a story might have had on society, whether it changes people’s viewpoints or influences policy. But she notes that she is biased because she mostly judges health stories. “The impact piece is very important — but I’m not sure it should be the only criterion,” Rodgers says, pointing toward crucial questions in astrophysics that don’t have an everyday impact.

At the end of the day most judges agree that the best stories easily rise to the top if they epitomize the basic elements of good journalism — including novelty, on-the-ground reporting, beautiful prose and impact. But singling out the best falls to judges’ individual preferences, spurring lively discussions within judging panels.

Some readers prefer stories that really dive into the science, while others prefer stories that also have a strong narrative and colorful writing, Carey says. Having done it for so long, I realize how variable it can be or idiosyncratic. Clearly the best stories rise to the top, but when you’re trying to pick among a story that may seem very similar in quality and they’re all very good, then it becomes of individual preferences of the judges.”

Carey and Boyle agree that one panel of judges might pick a different winner from another panel of judges, given the same entries. That’s the nature of the competition.

It also means that there’s no secret formula, Rodgers says. There is simply far too much variation among individual judges in experience and what they find interesting. That much can be seen from the variety of the winners over the years. In some years, a straightforward news story might win. In other years, a city paper might win. It’s really a mix. “I guess the positive news is: Almost any kind of story, if it’s really well done, can win,” Carey says.