The winners of the George Polk Awards in Journalism were announced this week. Among many familiar names – 60 Minutes, The New York Times, CNN – was one surprise. The award for videography was given to the anonymous person or persons responsible for the video of the death of 26-year-old Iranian Neda Agha-Soltan during protests last year. Polk Awards curator John Darnton explains why.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: This is On the Media. I'm Brooke Gladstone.
BOB GARFIELD: And I'm Bob Garfield. The winners of the George Polk Awards in Journalism were announced this week. There were a lot of familiar names – 60 Minutes, The New York Times, CNN, but there was at least one surprise. That would be the award given to the anonymous person or persons responsible for the video of the death of 26-year-old protestor Neda Agha-Soltan. John Darnton is the curator of the Polk Awards. John, welcome to On the Media.
JOHN DARNTON: Thank you, Bob. I'm glad to be here.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, this is already an iconic video, and this is going to be very difficult even to listen to the description of, but please tell me what it captures.
JOHN DARNTON: Well, there are, in fact, two separate videos. One is about eight seconds, one is about forty seconds. In the longer one, you see a young woman, dark-haired, kind of collapse backward, and several men rushing to her aid. She falls upon the street, and a stream of blood starts appearing, first, I think, out of her nose, and her eyes kind of roll toward the back of her head, so there’s a very vivid and rather grotesque shot of her precisely at the moment of death, I think.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, apart from how graphic and horrible and dramatic this footage is, it was also one of the very few video windows into what was going on in the streets of Tehran. Is that what caught your attention, or was it just the violence itself?
JOHN DARNTON: No, it was not the violence. It was the fact that this one piece of video footage seemed to rise above all other means of getting news out of Iran to the outside world. We had quite a few print entries in this category. They were all quite good - The New York Times, Wall Street Journal, Washington Post – but in a strange way, they all almost cancelled each other out. That is to say, none of them rose above the others. And then in thinking it over, we thought, well, what does one take away from that dramatic period of street protests? And what stuck with me, and with others, was the memory of the footage of the death of that rather brave young woman.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I don't want to diminish the power of this video, but I must ask you this: If I see a bank robbery through the glass of a window and dial 911, I am a good citizen, but I'm not a detective. If the person who recorded this was simply a civilian who happened to be in the wrong place at the right time, does that make him or her worthy of a journalism prize?
JOHN DARNTON: Well, that is the big question, isn't it? The George Polk Awards, after all, are means of honoring professional journalists. Throughout our 60 year history, that’s what we've done. But in this case, we felt that it was time to, in a sense, say we're all in a new world now. Yes, there are professionals out there, but there are also people I call bystanders who are capable of recording important events, in this case, just with a camera on a cell phone, and transmitting it to the outside world. There’s no reason if what they actually send out there has news value that they should not be considered, I think, for an award. There've been previous awards – a Pulitzer went once to an anonymous photographer, also, incidentally, shooting inside Iran.
BOB GARFIELD: Yeah, that was Jahangir Razmi, who photographed another iconic violent image of the firing squad deaths in the wake of the Iranian Revolution. He was a photographer in the employ of a newspaper -
JOHN DARNTON: Sure, sure.
BOB GARFIELD: - when he took those photos.
JOHN DARNTON: No, I recognize that. And, in fact, if you look at many of the iconic photographs of the past, the burning of the Buddhist monk in Vietnam, the execution by pistol in Vietnam, Kent State, they were all taken by recognized professional photographers. This is different. This is a kind of backhanded recognition that so-called neutral platforms, like MySpace and YouTube, can actually serve a powerful function in disseminating news.
BOB GARFIELD: That said, should we professional journalists, whatever that means, [LAUGHS] should we feel slighted that -
JOHN DARNTON: [LAUGHS]
BOB GARFIELD: - an award has gone not to journalistic rigor, but to doing the right thing in a serendipitous circumstance?
JOHN DARNTON: Mm-hmm, mm-hmm. I don't think we should feel slighted at all. In fact, with all of this material bombarding us constantly now, we're more in need of professionals than ever before to help us sort through it. There is a danger in this new world in which anonymous footage can get instant worldwide play, and that is you must have a sense of the provenance of it. Now, in this case, it is very clear that this is not staged footage.
BOB GARFIELD: Finally, John, you have awarded this prize to somebody, somebodies, but have you or the rest of the committee given any thought as to what effect this is going to have somewhere in Tehran?
JOHN DARNTON: I have no assurance of this, but I would like to think that whoever did take the footage and whoever uploaded it might hear of this award, somehow, might feel, secretly, that they made a very valuable contribution to the world’s understanding of what was going on. And in the meantime, we will hold a plaque without a name or names on it, and if in the future some claimant can come forward and support the claim, we would most gladly honor them with it.
BOB GARFIELD: All right, John, thank you so much.
JOHN DARNTON: Thank you very much.
BOB GARFIELD: John Darnton is an award-winning journalist and the curator of the George Polk Awards.