What is Excellence?

"Excellence" is a word that gets tossed around so often, it is now on par with “interesting” in the scholastic broadcasting world.

Contests that honor the top shows in the nation say they recognize “excellence,” but often, they don’t.

Our staffs all want to be recognized as “excellent,” but what is “excellence” in scholastic broadcasting in 2016?  Are there some identifiable characteristics of an “excellent” student-produced program?  Yes, there are.  And judges need to know that students can achieve these, and should be expected to, before hanging a national honor on a show.

To that end, I offer the following criteria for “excellence” that I believe should be part of every national contest rubric in high school.  At least it's a starting point for these discussions.  So...

First, audio.  If I can not hear your interviews, or your voiceovers sound like they were recorded inside a tin drum, you can not be considered “excellent.”  Sorry.  You just can’t.  Clean up the audio.  In addition, your stories should include natural sound, lots of it.

Second, writing.  If your script sounds like it was written for the school newspaper, you’re out.  Writing for broadcast is conversational, and it sets up, and gets out of the way of, the sound bites from your sources.  Stilted, awkward, wordy phrasing, or trying to adapt the 5 W’s to your broadcast lead, usually keeps you from being “excellent.”  Write it tight, keep it active, less is more.

Third, visuals.  Out of focus.  Shaky.  Poor framing.  Bad lighting.  No white balance.  No tight shots.  No sequences.  Those are the “not-so-excellent” things that should eliminate your show from that “excellence” designation if too many of these are repeated throughout your show.   

Fourth, courage.  “Excellence” should require some journalistic courage.  You do not have to uncover malfeasance in the district financial office, or expose a cheating scandal on campus.  But you should dig deeper than coverage of the homecoming game or the French Club.  Do some serious journalism in at least one story on your submission.  Cover at least one two-sided topic.  Or find a story that might actually make some people uncomfortable.  We need the serious journalism to receive the serious honors.

If our national contests that reward “excellence” are more about technical skills and attractive studios, and less about the actual journalism taking place, then they are not really honoring journalism at all.  They are simply handing out glorified craft awards.

There is one more reason our national contests should honor journalistic courage.  So many broadcast teachers and students are hemmed in by administrators who do not want coverage of any controversial or challenging topics.  It would be a huge help to all the young people dying to do some real journalism if our national competitions demanded more courageous content, and less fluff.  You want teachers and kids point to your awards and say, "We can't compete for those unless we start doing better journalism."

It all comes down to this:  what you recognize speaks volumes about your organization, and what it stands for.  So have high standards.  We will get there, as long as we know what our target is.