By Edward Hershey
In 1949, Long Island University established a new journalism prize to memorialize George Polk, a CBS correspondent who was killed while covering the civil war in Greece. The mission of the George Polk Awards, as distinguished from other journalism honors, focused on recognizing not the news organizations or publishers, but investigative reporters themselves.
Much about journalism has changed in the six decades since the inaugural Polk Awards, including the rise of the Internet and the technological disruption it has caused. But one constant has endured and even thrived: intrepid, courageous reporters committed to doing whatever it takes—even at risk of their own life and liberty—to uncover matters of critical importance to an informed public and the very foundation of democratic society.
As the only major American journalism prize that has always honored work across all media platforms, the Polk Awards has consistently been at the fore of the changing ways we access news and information. The list of Polk winners includes some of the biggest names in journalism. Seymour Hersh, Christiane Amanpour, Jimmy Breslin, Walter Cronkite, Thomas Friedman, Edward R. Murrow, Bill Moyers, A.M. Rosenthal, Jane Mayer, Sidney Schanberg, Pete Hamill, I. F. Stone, Studs Terkel, and the teams of Woodward and Bernstein and Barlett and Steele are all Polk laureates.
But the Polk committee has also consistently recognized the important work of non-mainstream media. Reporters from small-town dailies and weeklies have been Polk Award recipients. Honored work has come from sources as highbrow as the London Times Literary Supplement and the New York Review of Books; as homespun as “Inside Edition” and Redbook Magazine; non-profit news organizations such as Pro Publica and California Watch; and relatively obscure and niche publications such as American Banker, the Amicus Journal, Amnesty International Report, Chemical & Engineering News, Guam Cable Television, Insurance Forum, National Thrift News, and Southern Exposure.
In 1981, two inmates serving life sentences at the Angola, Louisiana prison were honored for thoughtful and searing accounts of prison life in their magazine, the Angolite. One winner, Wilbert Rideau, accepted his award 30 years later, following his parole. In 2007, the Polk Awards were also the first to recognize a blog that was independent of a traditional news organization by honoring Josh Marshall’s “Talking Points Memo” for exposing political tampering in federal prosecutors’ offices and effectively welcoming online bloggers into mainstream journalism.
What each accomplished, at least once, was superb reporting based on original investigation—exposing war criminals, corrupt officials, and cheats and hucksters who bilked the poor, abused power, or endangered the public—with stories that gained attention and often achieved results.
Occasionally a George Polk Award is given to someone better known outside news reporting. James Baldwin, Red Barber, Joan Didion, William O. Douglas, Henry Louis Gates, Ira Glass, Michael Harrington, Spike Lee, Norman Mailer, Leo Rosten, Oliver Sacks, and Edward Sorel were Polk winners in recognition of work that was not traditional journalism, but exposed a story that made an important impact on society and resonated the spirit of investigative reporting.
This legacy of dedication to supporting and celebrating the groundbreaking, impactful work of reporters across all media and means of communication has made the George Polk Award one of America's most prestigious and coveted journalism honors.
The integrity and continuity of the selection process gives the George Polk Award a cachet that has helped make it a reporter's award. Winners in about a dozen categories are named each year from among hundreds of nominees referred by the Polk Advisory Board—a panel of several dozen news-business influencers, including Seymour Hersh, Carl Bernstein, and Polk Awards Curator John Darnton, twice a Polk winner for his work at The New York Times. Nominations are also welcomed from reporters, news organizations, and the reading and viewing public. Final judging is by a jury of educators and communicators with a connection to the university by a rotating guest juror from the working press. Their selections are not subject to review by institutional officials.
Awards are presented each spring at a luncheon in Manhattan attended by news executives, journalists, educators, and students. The honored work is exhibited, elegantly crafted citations are read by familiar voices—the late Douglas Edwards of CBS did it for many years—and recipients provide observations, often describing pressures they faced from the angry subjects of their exposés. Long Island University's journalism department takes a more academic look at some of the award-winning efforts in the George Polk Seminar on the eve of the luncheon, assembling a panel of winners to discuss their reporting and respond to questions from members of the press and journalism students. In 2013 the seminar was named in honor of retiring president David Steinberg, a singular enthusiastic supporter of the strength and integrity of the awards in his 28 years of service.
Beginning in 2012, the prizes included a monetary award made possible by donations from the Nicholas B. Ottaway Foundation, the Marian S. Heiskell Giving Fund, the Arthur Ochs Sulzberger Giving Fund and the Ruth Holmberg Giving Fund. In the same year the Polk program initiated grants for investigative reporting.
In the spirit of George Polk, homage is also paid at the awards luncheon to journalists who have died in the line of duty. The list, compiled by the Committee to Protect Journalists and posted in the exhibition area, is invariably long enough to elicit exclamations of surprise. It is also a reminder of the danger faced by the men and women of this proud profession and a symbol of why the work honored by the Polk Awards continues to be so important.