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The best in broadcast journalism

CBS News' Scott Pelley, center, accepts a 2011 duPont award for his reporting on the Gulf oil spill. Photo: Diane Bandereff

Oscar de la Renta gowns were noticeably absent, icy stone steps stood in for a red carpet and there was no Vanity Fair after-party, but there was no shortage of style (and substance) at the 2011 duPont Awards ceremony at Columbia University. The duPonts are handed out each year to celebrate the best in broadcast journalism: the best radio, the best TV and in recent years, the best online multimedia pieces. The award certainly has cachet amongst an insider journalism crowd, but members of the general public probably don’t have any idea who won. And that’s a shame.

Sure, some of the winning reports are from big-name network shows — “60 Minutes” received an award for “The Blowout,” an investigative look into the Deepwater Horizon explosion in the Gulf of Mexico. But because the duPonts are bestowed by a small jury of folks who know that good journalism can also be found in small markets, there are plenty of winners who do fantastic work with far fewer resources for far smaller audiences.

At the awards ceremony, most of the acceptance speeches spoke to the imperative for investigative journalism in a climate of waning financial support or to the personal commitment the reporters feel to their subjects. No one thanked their agent….

Here at Need To Know, we think there’s plenty of need-to-know reporting among the 2011 duPont winners. And because the awards ceremony won’t be televised in prime time, we’ll be spotlighting some of the stories that deserve your attention. For the most part, they’re available in-full online. This is great journalism for the benefit of the public. So you don’t even have to fork over $10 for a movie ticket, wait for it to come up in your Netflix queue or get busted for downloading a pirated copy.

“The Great Textbook War”

To kick things off, take a listen to West Virginia Public Broadcasting’s radio report (which also won a little thing called the Peabody Award). This isn’t a story about last year’s debate in Texas. While things are usually bigger in the Lone Star State, the controversy in Texas pales in comparison to a violent battle that raged in West Virginia back in 1974.

As the civil rights movement gained strength in the ‘60s, advocates pushed for more inclusive educational materials that encompassed the experiences of African-American children as well as white, middle-class contemporaries of “Dick and Jane.” Accordingly, federally funded textbooks with a multicultural flair started hitting classrooms in the early ‘70s and an explosion was soon to follow. In 1974, these new books sparked a culture war in Charleston, W. Va., that went far beyond raised voices at a school board meeting. Children were kept home from school to protest the revised textbooks, one anti-textbook protester was shot, schools were firebombed at night and at one point, a protester fired a shotgun at a school bus.

Producer and Charleston native Trey Kay was 12 years old when forces clashed in his hometown. In the report, Kay intertwines his vivid reminiscences with period archive and current-day interviews with many of the players whose voices still ring with vehemence over the controversy. It’s a dramatic narrative that draws power from the producers’ relationship to the people and places involved. The report serves not only as a vibrant artifact of the past, but also as a reminder that the shots fired in the West Virginia textbook war still echo in the populist sentiment sweeping the nation today.

Listen to the piece.

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