Theme and structure: key elements in the criteria for excellence in journalism
Journalism it is often claimed, is a social instrument that is the chief means by which citizens become informed and equipped to be active participants in democratic life. As Kovach expresses this point "the role of the press since its beginning has been to help the people overcome the scarcity of information upon which they could make thoughtful and informed decisions" (Kovach http://www.concernedjournalists.orglnode/492). The higher the standard of journalism, therefore, the more effectively it can fulfill its role. However, questions arise of precisely what is meant by standards of excellence in journalism and furthermore, what are the criteria by which it can be measured? As an area of research, criteria for journalistic excellence remain difficult to define and challenging to measure and quantify. Since industry awards programs devoted to recognizing the best in journalism would reasonably be expected to stipulate their understanding of excellence, they would appear a logical place to begin the task of investigating what constitutes journalistic excellence. Shapiro et al., however, have reported that "many [awards] programs simply don't have judging guidelines, while others consist mostly of lists of terms, without explanation or illustration" (7).
Without evidence of excellence criteria being available from those industry programs and institutions whose professional role it is to recognize excellence, scholars have had to broach the subject in different ways. Some studies devoted to the goal of naming concrete characteristics of excellence have sought to define "excellence" by interviewing judges, journalists and newspaper editors. These have resulted in individually subjective answers. Other research initiatives have measured journalistic writing by equating quality with conformity to traditional journalistic standards such as "accuracy" and "impartiality" (Bogart 45). Like the subjective opinion of industry professionals, any list of standards in journalism is potentially elusive because of the manifold variables that influence conclusive final judgment. For some industry professionals though. These references to the more enduring standards of the profession "would be seen ... not as criteria of excellence ... but as bare minimum requirements" (Shapiro et al. 6). Shapiro et al. advanced the understanding of "excellence" by reinforcing the presence of these traditional journalistic standards, and by demonstrating that the weighting each judge placed on these criteria was subject to individual preference. While the weighting of criteria of excellence may be subjective, this study's findings indicate that there are indeed commonalities among award winning articles, and these relate to two main variables: theme and structure.