Revelations and Empathy

The criteria of journalistic revelation were broader in Germany. Feature writing and featuresque aspects of news stories were as important as investigative journalism in the USA. Rather than for the disclosure of secrets, many German prizewinning news stories in non-feature categories were praised for revealing hidden life circumstances or helping to better understand a larger context through close examination of something relatively small. In the US cases, only the statements of designated PP feature writing awards put a similar emphasis on stories about personal troubles that illuminate public issues and problems, to use C. Wright Mills’ (2000) famous turn of phrase. The evaluation criteria outlined in this genre-unspecific TWP statement could be applied to features in the USA:

This piece has everything which is generally considered “award-worthy”: It is a deeply humane story about humanity, taken out of real life and investigated close to the narrative subject. The story is neatly crafted; it is touching but subtle in its choice of language and not at all corny. And it is exciting - from the first to the last line. (Theodor-Wolff-Preis 2011a)

Another reoccurring criterion of excellence that shone through here is that journalism has to turn a supposedly dull issue into an exciting story. Not all statements put it as bluntly as the following, which stated that Stefan Willeke’s (Die Zeit) story “enchants the sale of a shut down coking plant—a substance matter nobody is interested in—into a fascinating piece of journalistic literature” (Henri-Nannen Preis 2005).

Quite remarkably, but perhaps indicating a national-cultural rather than occupational-cultural difference, is how statements addressed emotionality. While juries unanimously valued emotionally moving featuresque writing, German award committees honored a specific narration of emotionality. This is already apparent in the above-quoted TWP statement, which referred to the story as “not at all corny”—a phrase that occurred repeatedly. German juries wanted reporters to show empathy for their subjects but to deliver stories with a certain distance. In a story about Alzheimer, the jury noted: “The author has followed the story over one and a half years up close and then did a brilliant job writing it very movingly but completely unsentimentally, with great sensitivity and authenticity and high informational value” (Henri- Nannen Preis 2009). Another statement asserted that “with linguistic accuracy that creates distance, Ulrich forcefully depicts suffering of people in short scenic highlights, which he sets against the coldness of the judiciary. A moving journalistic work” (Theodor-Wolff-Preis 2011b).

Acknowledging distanced, unaufgeregt (unagitated) and pathos-free writing that avoids any jargon of concernment permeated almost all German jury statements honoring featuresque stories. This theme was completely absent in the US cases, although such assertions would be possible even in short statements, if only by inserting qualifying adjectives. Instead, they read like a statement on Eli Sanders (The Stranger) who won the PP in feature writing in 2012 “for his haunting story of a woman who survived a brutal attack that took the life of her partner, using the woman’s brave courtroom testimony and the details of the crime to construct a moving narrative” (Pulitzer Prizes 2016f). US award rationales were not at all apologetic for honoring emotionality, which is also true for other categories besides feature writing. The German insistence on restraint and dispassion, on the other hand, was blatant and will reappear in the analysis of obituaries as well as in the result of my field research.

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