The Casey Interviews: Adrianne Flynn

April 30, 2012

Some journalism is so well done—the writing so compelling and clear, the topic and context so important and the story so responsibly reported—that, well, it deserves a medal. The annual Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism honor the best written, photo and multimedia journalism covering children and families. They are awarded by the University of Maryland Journalism Center on Children and Families and the Annie E. Casey Foundation.

So what's it like to be a judge for this prestigious award? To have the honor (and pressure) of selecting the 11 winners?

SparkAction's Alison Waldman had an opportunity to find out. She spoke with several of the 2011 contest's judges, who shared their thoughts about what we should be reading, what makes a great and responsible story, and where this type of journalism is headed. (Hint: it's not where you think.)

Our series celebrates journalism on youth and families and 2011's extraordinary winners!


Blake Morrison, Project Series judge    |     Patrick Boyle, Magazine judge     |     April Saul, Photojournalism judge    |     Natalie Hopkinson, Magazine judge 


Adrianne Flynn
Chief Judge


SparkAction's Alison chatted with Adrianne Flynn, chief judge of the Casey Medals, and the Washington D.C Bureau Director of Capital News Service at the University of Maryland. She gives a little taste of what happened behind the scenes at judging, what makes a winning Casey story, and mutlimedia's role in journalism today.


Alison Waldman:  Can you tell me a little about why the Casey Awards for Journalism exist?  Why is it important to spotlight responsible child & youth-focused journalism?

Adrianne Flynn:  I think journalism’s highest calling is to give voice to the voiceless and to shine light on problems. The Casey Medals do that for the most vulnerable members of our society--children and families--in a way that both inspires more work and rewards past inspiration.

AW: Can you tell me a little about what happened behind the scenes with the judging? 

AF:  I don’t want to get too far behind the scenes (laughs), but I think one of our most contentious contests was the opinion contest.  I like to joke because opinion writers are paid to be opinionated, and all the judges had very strong opinions of what they thought an award winning opinion winner should be for the Casey medals.  I will leave it at that—I think they are all happy with their choices, but it was a long road to get there.

The best thing about all of the judges was every judge, to a person, really, really cared deeply about who and what won the awards, about what work they were awarding, and what that message that that particular award would send. Every one of them was so thoughtful and so engaged.  I can’t compliment the judging crew enough in this contest.

AW: What makes a winning Casey story?  

AF: Number one, it has to be a story well told in an exemplary way. It has to be compellingly written and make people care about what it is that you’re saying. It has to be meticulously reported—all the elements have to be there.  Ultimately, It has to go above and beyond the ordinary daily business of journalist.  From there, it has to be really focused on what happens with the individuals, and on the issue of children and families.

"Our mission as journalists is to right wrongs, expose problems, and to give voice to the voiceless.  I think the Casey Medals embodies all of those things."

Finally, it also has to be a fresh look. When you run a contest about children and families, you don’t want to trod the same old ground. You really want to inspire your entrants to look elsewhere—to find out something that hasn’t been written about, or to look at it in a new way. I really like Patricia Wen’s story in the project series category, for example.  I found it very eye opening that this well-meaning, benevolent program may have been skewed in a less than beneficial direction, though by the best intention. I love that.

AW: I’m curious what you think makes for responsible journalism about child and family issues.  What are things that make journalism really make a difference in this beat?

AF: I think that varies widely. I think that the best Casey stories show the public what’s happening and allow the outrage to come forward. We’re looking for stories that can make a difference-- in one life, a single community, or a public policy with many lives at stake. All of those things are relevant to the Casey Medals.

AW: What are your thoughts on how multimedia has emerged into journalism?

Oh, it’s revolutionized it! Multimedia has brought information to every kind of learner. It had enabled us to reach even farther into the public sphere and show people what we see in as many layers and as much depth as we possibly can give them.  Multimedia has opened up the world.

AW: In a good way?

In a very good way. What I don’t like, though, is the speed at which news is produced now.  I am not against blogging, Twitter, or Facebook—I think all of those things are interesting and useful reporting tools.  But the speed leads to errors and mistakes.  Getting the scoop first should not be the ultimate goal of journalism, ever. If you’re beaten to a story but you’re right, that ultimately has as much validity as the first story out of the box. We need to slow down.

"A young person can do anything an established person can do. Sometimes they don’t realize their own potential."

AW: For young people who are aspiring to be journalists in such a changing world of news, what is your advice for them?

AF: I think that all young journalists should expose themselves to as much multimedia as they can. But ultimately, they have to do one thing really well, and expect to focus on that one thing moving into their career.   Knowing how to approach an interview as a photographer, for example, can be helpful and a huge advantage to a story, but it's almost impossible to tackle more than one medium simultaneously and still end up with the best quality product on all levels.

Young people should know that divisions and specialties in journalism are so important, even if papers don't have them now like they used to. News outlets do the whole business a disservice if they bank on one person to do video, photography, and reporting for the same story.  So it's important to let collaboration happen--send a crew of three and let them work together on all the elements but still focus on their own task at hand to photograph, write, or video.

AW: So is it better for young people who are trying to get their foot in the door in journalism to concentrate on one skill?

AF: I think they need to be proficient, but perhaps not expert, in all of the little things. Young journalists have to start at the bottom and will likely wind up doing multiple tasks. Everyone starts that way and it allows you to explore and figure out what you really are good at--and that may change over time. 

AW:  Did you have any entries from young journalists?

AF: Most of the entries were from established writers, but there were a few, including, the youth stories piece out from Minnesota public radio, that were not.  That was totally young people putting it together, doing the interviews, and holding the microphone.

I tell my students at Capital News Service that they can do anything that they put their mind to. They can win a Pulitzer for the writing they do for Capitol News Service—they just have to figure it out. They just have to have the drive and the stamina and the ability to do it.  A young person can do anything an established person can do. Sometimes they don’t realize their own potential.

EDITORS NOTE: The Casey Medals have this year added a category for Youth Media, for which young journalists will be recognized for their storytelling through multimedia.

AW: Is there anything else you’d like to add?

AF: All I would say is I hope the Casey medals continue to further this kind of great work.  This medal is a reward for looking at these policies, programs, and people,and I hope that people go for it like a brass rin.  I hope they look for stories in their own backyards that can expose these problems, and also win a Casey medal.  I hope we inspire people--I know we inspired our judges.


Blake Morrison, Project Series judge    |     Patrick Boyle, Magazine judge     |     April Saul, Photojournalism judge    |     Natalie Hopkinson, Magazine judge 


Alison Beth Waldman is Editorial Assistant at SparkAction. Email her at alison[at]


Alison Beth Waldman