The Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards

Peabody Spotlight: Focus On Social Issues

Peabody recognizes socially conscious storytelling

Each year, Peabody Awards recognize stories notable for their excellence as well as their resonance—whether it’s a warning to heed, injustice to address, or tragedy to observe with clear eyes and open hearts.

“The Peabody Awards have always been about more than a gorgeous face and a compelling tale told right—they also recognize stories that reflect where we are as a society,” Jacqueline Cutler noted in Variety earlier this year. “The 77-year-old awards pride themselves on maintaining relevance. And this year’s winners grapple with women’s rights, racism, nationalism, guns and environmentalism.”

After the awards are bestowed, the Peabody Media Center continues the conversation with a commitment to changing the narrative of how we think, talk, and react to today’s most pressing issues. As the scholarly research center and media production arm of the renowned awards program, the Media Center creates public programming that shines a light on the yearly award winners and nominees. It also supports critical scholarly engagement that addresses today’s changing media industry landscape.

How Narratives Add Up

Narrative Accretion is the recognition that stories—from documentaries and news to podcasts and entertainment programs—on certain subject matters add up, that the whole may often be greater than the sum of its parts. Any one story may unearth and explore important new areas, especially pressing or unseen contemporary issues and moments. But ultimately stories build upon and contribute to an on-going dialog with viewers and other artists about issues such as rape or criminal justice reform or poverty.

Indeed, sexual violence is best seen as “rape culture”, for example, because of the multiple layers of structural and cultural forces that allow sexual violence not only to be prevalent but often acceptable. We understand it as a culture precisely through the accumulation of stories which bring the viewer into a position of estrangement from that culture, jolting the viewer to see what is clearly in front of them but is often difficult to see in isolation (as structures and cultures typically are).

Narrative Accretion, then, is a recognition that singular stories—of rape in institutions such as colleges or the military, of unprocessed rape kits and corrupt legal systems, of social media users victimizing rape survivors—have greater meaning when read together as a collection of stories. Together they create a knowledge system for understanding in new ways precisely because these narratives offer new tools for thinking.

In some ways, the idea that stories accumulate over time is nothing new. Local history, for instance, is often an accumulation of legends and stories and documents, an aggregation of different narratives from multiple authors and times. Similarly, journalism or “news” exemplifies how stories build over time as more revelations or events unfold and facts add up to create a “story.” Indeed, journalists play this critical role in the creation of reality for readers as they recount “what is known” within a story as new information and accumulated facts are added up.

Accretion (as opposed to just accumulation) is defined as the process of growth that occurs through gradual accumulation of additional material or matter. Narrative accretion, then, recognizes that the breadth and variety of narratives, given proper circulation and exposure and time, have the potential to come together and cohere into new understandings and new ways of thinking. Furthermore, success in the marketplace or through critical recognition and cultural affirmation (such as awards) can also lead to imitation or snowballing of important themes. Indeed, such accretion can be measured by such imitations, the ripple effect created through media coverage, changes of narrative framing, increases in volume and texture of public conversations, and so forth.

Narrative Accretion also recognizes the specificity of this historical moment and the role of narrative within it as part of that process. Most of us live narrative-saturated lives, especially in the age of social media. A golden age of television has ushered in 500 scripted narratives a year in the U.S. alone. Documentaries proliferate across public media and streaming platforms alike. Podcasts provide unprecedented access to telling stories on demand for listening. And digital storytelling—through VR, data journalism, webisodes, mobile media, interactive documentaries, and even video games—saturate the web. In sum, there is no shortage of spaces for narrative to live and thrive.

To demonstrate, let’s look only at narratives that have received critical recognition in recent years through the George Foster Peabody Awards. The Peabody Awards review and adjudicate approximately 1200 television, radio/podcasts, and digital programming submissions per year. These submissions amount to what producers see as their best work, that which is worthy of winning an award for “Stories That Matter.” In turn, Peabody recognizes 30 winners and 30 nominees across genres (entertainment, documentary, news, public service) and platforms.

To take an issue such as race and criminal justice reform, Peabody has recognized 25 programs as winners and nominees in the last four years alone (a number, of course, that does not include programs submitted to Peabody for consideration that did not receive such recognition). Across documentaries, news, radio/podcasts, and even scripted entertainment, a powerful array of narratives emerges—stories of police violence and brutality, racialized policing, sentencing, the bail system, solitary confinement, false imprisonment, mass incarceration, criminalization of youth, prison conditions, readjustment after life in prison, and the overall failures of the criminal justice system in America. (See list below.)

It is precisely the fact that these stories appear and repeat across genre and platform, year after year, that adds not only to the growing body of evidence that the criminal justice system is broken, is racist, and/or that injustice is routinely accepted or ignored. Rather, these narratives cohere and contribute to a new understanding that how we think and talk about race and criminal justice itself must change. The evidence is overwhelming, and it adds up. But such narratives also provide the necessary vehicles for identification, recognition, connection, attachment, empathy, and understanding.

In sum, narrative accretion foregrounds how the accumulation of narratives is part of the process of societal growth and change. And through such accretion, the stories we carry in our heads can be powerful motivators for social action, policy change, and reform.

Below are recurring social issues addressed by Peabody Award winners and nominees between 2014-2018; winners indicated in bold; nominees in italics. While not an exhaustive list of all stories recognized by the program, it offers insight into how Peabody reflects the pulse of important issues of the day.

  • Futures of Media Award

    The Peabody Student Honor Board allows University of Georgia students the opportunity to be involved with the Peabody Awards, which honor the most powerful, enlightening, and invigorating stories in television, radio, and online media.

  • The students serve as production assistants for the awards ceremony in New York, as ambassadors for the university community, and as judges for a separate but related awards program called the Futures of Media Award.

    For the Futures of Media Award, which fall under the Peabody Media Center, students review and judge digital storytelling and choose top winners for stories in digital spaces. As part of the judging process, the students take a “New Digital Narratives” course, refining their critical-thinking and deliberation skills through examination of emerging media forms.

    “It’s about as close to experiential learning as you’ll find, in that the students are studying it and then they get to meet and interface with the producers of that media,” said Jeffrey P. Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards, who teaches the class. “Many of the students have reported what a rich experience it was for them.”

  • Peabody Spotlight

    Peabody Spotlight is a digital series that draws from the vast Peabody Archive, one of the largest repositories of audiovisual materials in the United States. Peabody Spotlight focuses on significant societal issues as represented through the storytelling of Peabody Award winners and finalists, as well as more than 75 years of broadcasting’s best programming.

  • Peabody Spotlight - Tracing Race & Justice

    When it comes to issues of racial equality, America faces an enduring struggle to provide justice, fairness and equality to all citizens. Narrated by Eric Deggans, “Tracing Race & Justice” visits stories that raise awareness about longstanding issues in policing and the criminal justice system and serve as an important call for change.

  • Peabody Spotlight - Sexual Assault

    Narrated by Charlayne Hunter-Gault, this Peabody Spotlight reveals dark truths while maintaining hope for change. The Peabody Media Center recently tracked stories about sexual assault and rape that expose a culture of complicity evident even before the rise of the #MeToo movement.

  • Peabody Spotlight - Baltimore: Then & Now

    Peabody Archive materials illustrate that the conversation about race in Baltimore began long before the death of a young man, Freddie Gray, in police custody. This Peabody Spotlight demonstrates how the city’s conversation about race has evolved over the years, and reveals that poverty, class and lack of investment in infrastructure have long been key factors in the city’s struggles.

  • Peabody Spotlight - Black Power & Creative Expression

    The explosive acts of racially motivated violence in the 1960s gave birth to more than just enmity between races and a national crisis—it fueled the creative passion of artists like Nina Simone, Gordon Parks, and James Brown. This installment of Peabody Spotlight revisits their work and its impact on the civil rights and Black Power movements of the time.

  • Peabody Spotlight - Storytellers: Black History

    The United States would be a very different country if not for African-Americans, who played a central role in shaping its culture—from popular music to food—and continue to define it. This Peabody Spotlight takes a look at storytelling by filmmakers such as Henry Louis Gates Jr., whose work has helped bring the history of African-Americans to light.

  • Peabody Fellows

    Peabody Fellows are a distinguished group of television and media studies scholars from across the country who provide fresh perspectives and commentary on how and why stories matter and their impact on media, culture and society. These scholars regularly write to address such issues, expanding the scope of the Peabody Media Center to socially-integrated audiences. The inaugural class of fellows includes:

  • Professor Aymar Christian, Northwestern University

    Professor Aymar Christian, Northwestern University

    Aymar Jean “AJ” Christian is an assistant professor of communication studies at Northwestern University. His book, Open TV: Innovation Beyond Hollywood and the Rise of Web Television, argues that the web brought innovation to television by empowering independent producers. His work has been published in numerous academic journals, including Cinema Journal, Continuum, and Transformative Works and Cultures. He leads Open TV (beta), a research project and platform for television by queer, trans, and cis-women and artists of color. He has juried television and video for the Peabody Awards, Gotham Awards, Streamy Awards, and Tribeca Film Festival, among others. His blog, Televisual, is an archive of over 500 posts chronicling the rise of the web TV market, and he has written regular reports on TV and new media for Indiewire, The Wall Street Journal, Slate, and Tubefilter. He received his doctorate from the University of Pennsylvania.

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  • Professor David Craig, University of Southern California

    Professor David Craig, University of Southern California

    David Craig is a media and entertainment professor, scholar, producer, and activist. As a clinical assistant professor at USC’s Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism, Craig manages the media and entertainment track in the Master in Communications Management Program. His courses synthesize theory and practice, production and management, within the global and U.S. media industries, including traditional film and television as well as digital and social media. He is the author of the forthcoming Social Media Entertainment: The New Industry at the Intersection of Hollywood and Silicon Valley (NYU Press). Craig is also a Hollywood film and television producer and programming executive. During his tenure at A&E Networks, he supervised more than 30 movies, mini-series and drama series, and received Emmy Award nominations for producing Napoleon and Ike: Countdown to D-Day, and Flight 93. Craig received a doctorate in education from UCLA, a master’s degree in cinema studies from NYU, and a bachelor’s degree in communications from the University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill.

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  • Professor Herman Gray, University of California - Santa Cruz

    Professor Herman Gray, University of California - Santa Cruz

    Herman Gray is professor of sociology at the University of California-Santa Cruz, where he teaches graduate and undergraduate courses in media and television studies, cultural theory and politics, and jazz studies. Gray’s research is on the role of television, media, and culture in organizing, sustaining, and challenging racial projects. He has published widely in the areas of black cultural theory, politics, and media. Gray is the author of Watching Race (Minnesota) and Cultural Moves and co-editor of Towards a Sociology of the Trace with Macarena Gomez Barris (Minnesota). Most recently, he co-edited The Sage Handbook of Television with Manuel Alvarado, Milly Buoanno, and Toby Miller. Gray is also a former radio producer and jazz announcer. He received a doctorate in sociology from UC-Santa Cruz, a master’s degree from Washington State University, and bachelor’s degree from Florida A&M University.

  • Professor Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison

    Professor Jonathan Gray, University of Wisconsin, Madison

    Jonathan Gray is a professor of media and cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. He is the author and editor of 11 books. His monographs include Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers, and Other Media Paratexts (NYU Press), Television Entertainment (Routledge), and Watching with The Simpsons: Television, Parody, and Intertextuality (Routledge). His edited collections include Fandom: Identities and Communities in a Mediated World (NYU Press) and Satire TV: Politics and Comedy in the Post-Network Era (NYU Press). Gray was co-editor of Popular Communication: The International Journal of Media and Culture from 2007-2012, and senior editor and founder of Antenna, a large-group blog in media and cultural studies, from 2009-2016. Gray has delivered talks and keynote addresses at venues including Harvard University; Université Sorbonne Nouvelle, Paris; University of Bologna, Italy, and Zhejiang University, China. He holds a doctorate from Goldsmiths College, University of London.

  • Professor Amanda Lotz, University of Michigan

    Professor Amanda Lotz, University of Michigan

    Amanda D. Lotz is professor in the departments of communication studies and ScreenArts and Cultures at the University of Michigan. She is the author of The Television Will Be Revolutionized (NYU Press), Cable Guys: Television and American Masculinities in the 21st Century (NYU Press), and Redesigning Women: Television After the Network Era (University of Illinois Press), and editor of Beyond Prime Time: Television Programming in the Post-Network Era (Routledge). She is co-author, with Timothy Havens, of Understanding Media Industries (Oxford University Press) and, with Jonathan Gray, of Television Studies (Polity). She was named the 2004 Coltrin Professor of the Year by the International Radio and Television Society for her case study exploring the redefinition of television. She received a doctorate from the University of Texas-Austin, a master’s degree from Indiana University, and a bachelor’s degree from DePauw University.

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  • Professor Jason Mittell, Middlebury College

    Professor Jason Mittell, Middlebury College

    Jason Mittell is professor of film and media culture and American Studies at Middlebury College. He is the author of Genre and Television: From Cop Shows to Cartoons in American Culture (Routledge), Television and American Culture (Oxford University Press), and Complex Television: The Poetics of Contemporary Television Storytelling (NYU Press), and the co-editor of How to Watch Television (NYU Press). He maintains the blog Just TV. His research interests include television history and criticism, media and cultural history, genre theory, narrative theory, animation and children’s media, videogames, digital humanities, and new media studies and technological convergence. He is project manager for [in]Transition, a journal of videographic criticism, and co-led the NEH-sponsored digital humanities workshop “Scholarship in Sound & Image” in June 2015, which focused on producing video-based scholarly criticism. He received a doctorate from University of Wisconsin-Madison and a bachelor’s degree from Oberlin College.

  • Professor Barbie Zelizer, University of Pennsylvania

    Professor Barbie Zelizer, University of Pennsylvania

    Barbie Zelizer is the Raymond Williams Professor of Communication, and the director of the Scholars Program in Culture and Communication at the Annenberg School for Communication, University of Pennsylvania. A former journalist, Zelizer is co-editor and founder of Journalism: Theory, Practice, and Criticism (Sage), and also has served on the editorial boards of numerous book series and journals. She has lectured extensively, and her essays have appeared in The Nation, Newsday, and The Huffington Post. Zelizer has had fellowships with the Guggenheim Foundation, Stanford University, the Freedom Forum, and Harvard University. Zelizer’s research focuses on the cultural dimensions of journalism, with a specific interest in journalistic authority, collective memory, and journalistic images in times of crisis and war. She earned a doctorate from UPenn’s Annenberg School of Communication and bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Hebrew University of Jerusalem, Israel.