The College gave its annual Lovejoy Award for Courage in Journalism to journalist Leonard Pitts of the Miami Herald. Pitts spoke to the campus community in conversation with Mindy Marqués, Lovejoy Award Selection Committee member and Miami Herald editor, on April 6 in a virtual ceremony. Members of the College community could view a screening of the event in Lorimer Chapel.
The Lovejoy Award honors the life and work of Elijah Parish Lovejoy, Class of 1826, who was killed for publishing anti-slavery editorials before the Civil War. He is known as America’s first martyr to the freedom of the press and the selection committee has traditionally awarded journalists working for U.S.-based outlets who exhibit integrity, craftsmanship, and courage in his honor.
Pitts, besides being a professor, radio producer, lecturer, and author of many books, is best known for his nationally-syndicated column in the Miami Herald in which he has discussed race, racism, and politics for many years.
The award is normally given in the fall semester with a slew of related events, like a Goldfarb Center-sponsored panel of journalists, culminating in the award convocation in Lorimer Chapel.
This year however, the committee opted to postpone the event to the spring semester in the hopes of having these events in person, with Pitts, the selection committee, and people from Waterville and beyond able to participate as they normally do. But, because of campus COVID-19 pandemic restrictions, this was not possible and so the event was held virtually without events surrounding the award ceremony itself.
Vice President and Chief of Staff of the College Ruth Jackson said that there are so many virtual events these days that they opted for just the main event because “we wanted to make sure that people were able to tune in for the big one.”
Pitt’s award marked the first live-streaming of the event, a method that Jackson predicted will continue into the future.
“This was the first year where we were able to invite the entire world to the LJ award,” she said, adding that the College promoted the event in Miami to invite Pitts’ home-base of readers to watch the conversation, something they would not have been able to do if the event had been solely in person.
Assistant Director of Media Relations Hayley Barton shared that nearly 300 attendees joined the virtual event synchronously. It is available to stream on Youtube and Facebook, where it has received close to 150 views so far.
The Award Selection Committee is made up of seven journalists, Charles A. Dana Professor of Sociology Neil Gross, and Ex-Officio members President David Greene, Goldfarb Center Director Kimberly Flowers, and Colby Board of Trustees Chair Eric Rosengren `79. Jackson serves as the secretary of the Committee.
The committee’s selection process begins with nominations in the spring, which are currently open for next year and can be sent to email@example.com. The nomination opportunity is distributed to working journalists and journalistic publications such as the Poynter Institute and Columbia Journalism Review.
As mentioned above, the committee members evaluate nominees on integrity, craftsmanship, and courage. In recent years, the committee has also taken into consideration a fourth criterion: the potential of nominees’ to stimulate campus conversation on important issues.
The committee then makes a recommendation and notifies the winner, an exciting moment for Jackson.
“There really isn’t an award quite like this that is so focused around courage and courageous reporting, so it’s really meaningful to people. The moment I got on the phone with Leonard Pitts he just jumped into ‘Oh, Elijah Parish Lovejoy!’ and started telling me everything he knew about him,” she said.
Jackson hopes that Pitts can come to campus in the future to participate in smaller events or perhaps Lovejoy-related activities in future years.
“I hope we’ll be able to make that happen because he’s really remarkable and typically we like to have our Lovejoy award winner and our community get to engage in person,” Jackson said.
Part of that effort to increase engagement with the award was moving the ceremony to homecoming week in fall 2019 “to give families the opportunity to engage in this big moment in the life of the College” and talk about the issues around which the Award centers, Jackson explained. “The chapel was more packed than I’ve seen it and people loved the opportunity to be a part of that,” Jackson added.
The committee also added the fourth criterion, potential to stimulate campus conversation, with the same goal in mind.
“It was clear that if we really want the Lovejoy to be part of the student and the academic experience, we need to prioritize that,” Jackson said.
Jackson emphasized that the award winners of recent years have reflected that value, especially Leonard Pitts.
The Goldfarb Center’s involvement in the award was also a change made to connect the Lovejoy Award with the student and intellectual life of the College.
Additionally, this year, Jackson worked with a group of faculty to think about how Pitts’ work could be used in their courses. This year, Associate Professor of Sociology Christel Kessler required students in her Introduction to Sociology course to view the event. And, Jackson shared that in 2015, winner Katherine Boo’s book was taught in a class at the time of the award, which increased student interest in the event. She hopes to facilitate these academic connections with the Lovejoy Award even more in coming years.
Jackson hopes that the Lovejoy Award will connect the College to the personal history of Elijah Parish Lovejoy.
While students walk by the plaque on Miller Lawn or take classes in the Lovejoy building, they “don’t necessarily know why he is so honored in history,” Jackson explained. “So, we like to see this every year as an opportunity to educate the community on him and why we honor him and why he was so important in American history.”
“I’ve really enjoyed seeing how, the moment you tell a journalist that they’ve been offered the Lovejoy award, they know immediately who Elijah Parish Lovejoy was and why he was important and they’re really really honored,” Jackson said.
Jackson also hopes that the award makes students think about freedom of the press. Going back to Lovejoy’s day, freedom of the press has been threatened, so she hopes people who engage with the award come away with that lesson.
She hopes people realized that “freedom of the press is an essential element of the first amendment and that freedom of expression, broadly, is central to Colby’s values, and that journalism is critical to democracy.”
~Sonia Lachter `22
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