A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: TV feature reporting, Rhonda McBride, Phil Walczak

By Quill

The 2004 election paid attention to every vote.

With a close U.S. Senate race, the votes of rural Alaskans could potentially determine the balance in Congress. “Counting the Rural Vote” went to remote villages in Alaska, where some of the poorest people in America lived in Third World conditions.

“As I spend more and more time covering Alaska-native issues, I realize the more I know, the less I know,” said KTUU-TV reporter Rhonda McBride. “When I see the struggles of villagers, hardships that they bear with good humor and courage, it makes you appreciate all the advantages you’ve enjoyed in life – like people about to turn a tap and get water or being able to use a flush toilet. But I’m also struck by the faith that Alaska natives have in democracy and their appreciation of it – something that many take for granted.”

Covering rural Alaska required McBride and videographer Phil Walczak to overcome geographical and cultural barriers. Stories were weathered out, forcing coverage to change. Language was another challenge.

“Many Yup’ik Eskimo voters in southwestern Alaska don’t speak English, so you need the help of a translator,” said McBride. “While Yup’iks are fairly open … natives on the North Slope are very reluctant to let the news media videotape or film subsistence activities, because they’ve had a lot of national media attention over oil drilling in the Artic National Wildlife Refuge.”

Building trust with the North Slope natives, a group renowned for its consensus culture, the team’s coverage broke dispelled urban stereotypes of rural Alaskans.

“I have a greater appreciation for native culture and the needs in the villages,” said Walczak. “One thing I learned is that Alaska natives don’t all think alike and vote in one block. Before the series, I stereotyped the ‘native vote.’ It was surprising to learn that they’re independent thinkers.”

Judges praised the controversial script and well-shot video.

“So many journalists equate success by climbing to the biggest market,” said McBride, “but good stories are everywhere, waiting to be told.”