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Why Honoring Socially Conscious Storytelling Is Key to Peabody Awards

The Peabody Awards have always been about more than a gorgeous face and a compelling tale told right — they also recognize stories that reflect where we are as a society. The 77-year-old awards pride themselves on maintaining relevance. And this year’s winners grapple with women’s rights, racism, nationalism, guns and environmentalism.

The Peabody Awards examines how TV does “something for us as citizens,” says Jeffrey Jones, director of the Peabody Awards. “It was formed as the Pulitzer Prize for broadcasting. When we gave an award to Amy Schumer, it was not just because she’s funny, but because she’s saying important things about misogyny and rape and sexism in the industry.”

Though Jones cites Schumer’s win from 2014, these topics have only intensified, and this year’s awards recipients — including, in the entertainment categories alone, HBO’s “Insecure,” NBC’s “Saturday Night Live,” Netflix’s “American Vandal,” Hulu’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” and Amazon’s “The Marvelous Mrs. Maisel” — reflect that.

The Board of Jurors meets three times a year in face-to-face meetings. Eighteen journalists, showrunners and documentarians reach a unanimous decision on 30 winners selected from 60 nominees.

Their vote is strictly on the works’ “relevance in the world in which we live,” Jones says.

“Handmaid’s Tale” showrunner Bruce Miller works closely with the U.N. and a couple of non-governmental organizations to research how “for political and environmental reasons, a lot of people are moving around the world right now.” This informed the refugee storyline about characters fleeing oppressive regimes to Canada in his dystopian drama. He also took inspiration from movements including Occupy Wall Street for key flashback protest scenes.

“We always want to focus on the realism,” Miller says. “Not what we think should happen in this fictional world we created, but what would really happen? We tried to find out exactly what really would happen and kind of walk through that.”

Similarly, Peabody nominee “One Day at a Time” draws its stories from experiences its writers have had — whether it’s immigration, religion, colorism or sexual identity.

“One example is Elena’s coming-out arc, which was infused with many actual, funny, bittersweet emotional moments and events from our writers’ lives. That’s a big method by which we try to keep the show real,” say executive producers Gloria Calderon Kellett and Mike Royce.

American Vandal,” which executive producers Tony Yacenda, Dan Perrault and Dan Lagana say was birthed from “fascination with criminal injustice,” not only plays with the idea of misconceptions but also citizen journalism.

“It’s so incredibly rewarding to have the Peabody committee validate our loftier ambitions behind our seemingly juvenile mystery. We just wanted to do something different — something that merged documentary tools with scripted narrative in a way that had never been done before,” the executive producers say, before adding, “we’re so proud that we ended up with a Peabody award-winning dick joke.”

The awards, administered by the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication at the U. of Georgia, were announced in a rollout. Hasan Minhaj, who won a Peabody for his Netflix standup special “Homecoming King,” hosts the May 19 ceremony at Cipriani Wall Street in New York.

“This is a tip of the hat to the power of storytellers to shape how we as a country think. What makes it special are the people in journalism standing arm-in-arm with the people of entertainment,” says Jones.

Danielle Turchiano contributed to this story.

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