Why Reporters and Journalists Should Not Participate In The Beer Journalism Awards…

Posted on

Entering its fifth year, the Beer Journalism Awards is a program sponsored by the Brewers Association trade group that seeks to recognize “outstanding media coverage that increases beer enthusiasts’ understanding of the diversity and flavor of American craft beer.â€? Originally started by Ray Daniels, the original Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the former Association of Brewers, the program has proven a popular conduit between the association, which represent small American craft brewers, and the writers who cover the trade. According to the Brewers Association, the program has grown in submissions by 156% (58 in 2006, 136 in 2007), with a greater number of entries expected in 2008. The program has also been newly renamed in honor of legendary beer writer Michael Jackson, who passed away in 2007. Past winners include Lisa Morrison, Stan Hieronymous, Julie Johnson Bradford, Fred Eckhardt and several others.

The 2008 awards is sponsored in part by the Boston Beer Company, the Brooklyn Brewery, and the Rogue Ales Brewery. The program highlights the work three journalists each year in the following three categories:

  • Consumer Print Media: For work appearing in general circulation consumer print publications such as daily newspapers, as well as consumer-oriented news, food, and lifestyle magazines. Any publication that is not routinely focused on beer qualifies for inclusion in this category.
  • Consumer Electronic Media: Eligible work includes coverage which runs on broadcast or cable television or broadcast radio as part of a program aimed at a general consumer audience. Content that appears on the Internet on a general interest consumer site in which the site name and the preponderance of content are not concerned with beer will be considered in this category.
  • Trade and Specialty Beer Media: This category includes work appearing in publications and on programs that routinely focus on beer in their editorial content. This would include newsprint “beeriodicals,â€? and magazines concerned primarily with beer or brewing as well as programs that routinely concern themselves primarily with beer. Internet sites where beer is the primary focus will be considered in this category. Internet radio programming dedicated to beer is also included in this category. Please note that these awards focus on beer appreciation, so content that is significantly concerned with “how toâ€? aspects of brewing beer as a hobby or profession will not be considered. Should a question arise regarding the proper classification of an entry according to these categories, the Brewers Association will be the sole and final arbiter.

Entries can be advanced by the journalist or by a member brewer with the permission of the journalist.

The three winners of the competition, the closing date for which is July 31, are expected by the Brewers Association to attend the awards ceremony at the Great American Beer Festival held in Denver, Colorado, in October. The association pays the airfare from the recipient’s home state (up to $350), two nights in a hotel, Denver-area ground transportation (up to $50), $23 per day food per diem for each recipient, and an honorarium of $500. Winners of the Beer Journalism Awards are excluded from entering the category they won in for three years after winning.

I have entered the competition in the past, as well as a predecessor competition sponsored by the North American Guild of Beer Writers. In going over my work for the past year, I began to take a closer look at the somewhat vague and indefinite criteria listed in the Brewers Association’s guidelines. Over the past year, I have mainly written columns and news pieces for BeerAdvocate Magazine, columns and feature articles for Beverage Magazine, and a miscellaneous assortment of pieces for this website. And while I have generally been happy with the quality of this coverage, and it has attracted interest from both consumers and the trade, I initially wondered more about the criteria behind the judging of the Beer Journalism Awards. My interest was also piqued by the inclusion of a guideline, which I believe is new this year, that “only coverage/stories on ‘American’ craft beer will be accepted.� Considering the controversies raised over the Brewers Association’s definition of ‘craft brewer’ and its deliberate announcements that it was not trying to define ‘craft beer’, I started to think a bit more about the competition in general terms.

As readers of this website are aware, I’ve written a few times (a few too many some have said) over the past year about the ethics of beer writing and their importance in plying the journalism trade. After pondering the subject and doing some additional research, I went back and reconsidered my work over the past year. Avoiding too much self-reflection, suffice it to say that much of my work, especially in the Unfiltered column for BeerAdvocate and on my website, is contrarian in nature and hardly the kind of pro-industry prose that one would assume to fair well in a competition sponsored by a trade group. And in fact, I have written several articles about the Brewers Association itself or touching upon its policies and actions, some of which I agree with and others that I do not. And that is when I stopped to reconsider the Beer Journalism Awards and whether writers and journalists, on an ethical level, should be participating in them.

In trying to make up my mind, I decided to speak with Julia Herz, Director of Craft Beer Marketing for the Brewer Association and the person in charge of running the Beer Journalism Awards. Ms. Herz has done a very effective job of refocusing the association’s once scattered approach to marketing. From the outset, it is easy to understand why the association and its trade members would want to sponsor an awards program for journalists who cover their business efforts. In this respect, the awards, which “help our members acknowledge and recognize coverage of American craft beer,� serve as another marketing tool that helps court favor from the journalists. It encourages positive coverage of craft beer and brings journalists into the association’s fold. In short, it’s smart business for the association and its members to embrace those who cover their business interests.

While the Brewers Association and its staff would not likely deny this goal, they also speak about reaching out to writers who often toil in anonymity and rarely receive much compensation or attention for their efforts. “In our business, there is not a lot of time for brewers, who get a lot of love from the media, to say ‘thank you’ directly to the journalists,� said Julia Herz.

Ms. Herz was also able to answer some questions I had about how the judging process works. After the entries have been received, approximately 20 to 30 judges will receive copies a select number of entries for their review. The judge panel is comprised of Brewers Association staffers and member brewers who have not nominated any entrant. The top three or five entries are then provided to a new set of judges in a final round of judging.

The association provides an evaluation sheet that lists the judging categories and criteria, which include accuracy, quality of writing, and whether the entry overall “meets the objectives� set forth by the competition. According to Ms. Herz, these objectives include assessing whether the entry “increased consumer understanding of the diversity of American beer, whether it discussed the 1400 plus small breweries in America, whether it educated consumers about various beer styles produced in the U.S., and whether it discussed beer flavor characteristics or pairings with food.� In determining whether the entry focused on ‘American craft beer,’ the association does not define the term according to Ms. Herz. Instead, the Brewers Association allows judges interpret the guidelines in their own, personal ways. Accordingly, an article focusing on Blue Moon or Michelob Porter could be considered as coverage of American craft beer, depending upon the judge’s interpretation.

In discussing the possible ethical issues facing writers who are considering participation, Ms. Herz noted that “certain journalists cannot accept the awards due to the rules of their organization or publication.� She also noted that participating journalists can decline any part of the remuneration offered as part of the contest.

From my perspective, I see several potential ethical problems with participating in the Beer Journalism Awards. As many contest participants may be only occasional journalists, let’s start with the note that certain journalists are actually prohibited from participating in the awards. At the Kansas City Star, all editorial employees, full or part-time, freelance or contract, regardless of their position, title, beat or personal circumstance, are covered by the newspaper’s Code of Ethics. The Kansas City Star’s policy starts with this caution.

If we expect readers to view us as credible, then Star editorial employees must aggressively seek and fully report the truth while remaining independent and free from any legitimate suggestion that their independence has been compromised.

After detailing a litany of possible situations and the prescribed ethical actions, The Star then covers ‘contests.’


Staff members may not enter articles, photographs or graphics published in The Star in contests that are not sponsored by professional journalistic organizations. An exception would be a contest of journalistic excellence sponsored by a foundation, university or organization deemed by the managing editor or Editorial Page editor to be free of commercial, partisan or self-serving interests.

No awards of significant value may be accepted from any organizations other than those just described. In cases where a staff member’s work was submitted by some person or group outside The Star, the employee should check with a supervisor to make sure the award can be accepted.

No staffer may use The Star’s name to enter any contest without the approval of the managing editor or Editorial Page editor.

I believe The Star’s policy and guidelines describe a traditional approach to journalistic ethics. A quick review of the policies of news media outlets across the country confirm this general prohibition to be a standard in the industry.

The Orlando Sentinel’s Editorial Code of Conduct provides:

Contests and awards. Staffers should not enter contests sponsored by trade or advocacy groups – even if those contests are administered by a journalism organization or school – because they may exist primarily to promote those groups’ agendas. The Editorial Department maintains a list of approved national, regional and state contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. Staffers who want to enter contests not on the list must first obtain the permission of the Managing Editor or Editorial Page Editor. Staff members also should refrain from accepting unsolicited awards from trade or advocacy organizations.

The Fort Worth Star Telegram’s code of ethics counsels

Staff members should not enter contests without approval of managing editors or the editorial director. With approval, they may enter contests sponsored and judged by selected journalistic and professional organizations. Entry fees for a select number of contests will be provided by the Star-Telegram.

The Los Angeles Times requires:


Staff members should enter their work only in contests whose central purpose is to recognize journalistic excellence. The Times does not participate in contests that exist primarily to publicize or further the cause of an organization. Under no circumstances may staff members accept awards from groups they cover. A staff member who is offered an award should consult his or her supervisor before accepting it.

New Hampshire Public Radio informs its employees:

XII. Miscellaneous

1. We do not enter journalism contests or competitions when they are sponsored by groups that have an interest in influencing our coverage. All entries for contests or competitions must be approved by the Managing Editor or designee.

And finally, and more comprehensively, the New York Times provides:

Entering Competitions and Contests

45. Staff members may not enter local, national or international competitions sponsored by individuals or groups who have a direct interest in the tenor of our coverage. They may not act as judges for these competitions or accept their awards. Common examples are contests sponsored by commercial, political or professional associations to judge coverage of their own affairs. Senior newsroom managers may make exceptions for competitions underwritten by corporate sponsors if those are broad in scope and independently judged by journalists or disinterested public figures.

46. Staff members may compete in competitions sponsored by groups whose members are all journalists or whose members demonstrably have no direct interest in the tenor of coverage of the field being judged. Staff members may act as judges for such competitions and accept their awards. For example, a staff member may enter a university-sponsored competition for coverage of foreign affairs but not accept an advocacy group’s prize for environmental coverage.

47. Each newsroom’s management should maintain a current list of competitions it has approved. Staff members who would like to enter others should consult the responsible news executive. A critical factor in approving a competition, whatever the sponsorship, is a record of arm’s-length decisions, including a willingness to honor unfavorable reporting. Staff members who win unsought awards from groups that do not meet the criteria established here should decline, politely explaining our policy.

A problem that occurs within the beer writing and journalism community is that many reporters operate as freelancers for publications that do not clearly set forward their ethical requirements. Worse yet, as I have written before, many editors ingratiate themselves in to the beer industry they cover to an extent that their employees and contractors would not otherwise know any ethical issue was raised.

Even though the publications that I write for generally do not have written ethical code, I have decided not to participate in the Beer Journalism Awards for a number of reasons. First, as noted about, participation in a competitive event that allows a reporter’s work to judged by the subjects of the work is professionally inappropriate and has a chilling effect on the reporter’s objectivity and independence. It allows the association, with a vested interest in a particular type of positive coverage, to pick and choose the pieces they believe best fit their interests. The Beer Journalism Awards, however well-intended, is not a journalism contest but a competition to determine which journalists can best portray and market the Brewers Association and its brewer members. Second, it is clearly inappropriate for a reporter to accept financial remuneration from the subject of his or her work. I believe this to be a core and irrefutable ethical guideline for journalists and reporters. And finally, I’m troubled that a journalist or reporter can be nominated by a member brewer with the permission of the journalist, a recent addition of the contest that the Brewers Association has heavily promoted on its electronic listserv and to brewery members. This all-too-cozy partnership between the reporter and the subject, which occurred 40 times last year, threatens a journalist’s independence. I personally do not believe that reporters can ethically participate in the Beer Journalism Awards and would counsel fellow journalists to either decline to participate or to withdraw their already provided submissions.

Be Social: