The media industry has undergone a dramatic degree of change since John M. Seigenthaler began his journalism career decades ago.
Now a news anchor at Al Jazeera America and previously at NBC Nightly News, Siegenthaler has covered momentous news events such as the 9/11 terror attacks, the 2004 tsunami in Sri Lanka and, more recently, Pope Francis’ visit to the U.S.
Siegenthaler was awarded the 2015 Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media on Oct. 1, an honor which was also given to his late father, John L. Seigenthaler, in 1999.
Seigenthaler received the award at a ceremony held in the Al Neuharth Media Center.
Speakers at the ceremony included Gene Policinski, COO of the Newseum Institute and senior vice president of the First Amendment Center; James Abbott, president of USD; Jan Neuharth, chair and CEO of the Freedom Forum and daughter of Al Neuharth; and Jeffrey Herbst, president and CEO of the Newseum and Newseum Institute.
During the ceremony, Jan Neuharth shared memories of her father, who worked alongside the senior Siegenthaler at USA Today.
She also talked about John M. Seigenthaler’s career, saying his award “salutes an exemplary career in the media.”
“(Siegenthaler is) an example of integrity, fairness and good journalism,” Neuharth said.
Accepting the award, Siegenthaler spoke of the changes that have occurred in the media during his career.
“America’s trust in the fourth estate is significantly lower than it was 10 or 15 years ago,” Siegenthaler said.
Denouncing the “shift” in journalism, as it is faced with fewer news viewers, fewer newspaper subscriptions and less advertising revenue, Siegenthaler said sensationalism is used now more than ever to sell media products.
It’s because of this that important stories might be glossed over in favor of others with greater appeal and better odds of generating sales, Siegenthaler said.
Still, Siegenthaler signaled a positive note, praising his employers at Al Jazeera America who “weren’t focused on ratings but on quality journalism. We let the news speak for itself.”
He added that he feels hopeful about journalism’s future after meeting some student journalists during his time at USD, for whom “opportunities are endless.”
Siegenthaler finished his acceptance speech by declaring journalism to be “the best thing I’ve done with my life” and expressing gratitude for the “beautiful award,” designed by South Dakota artist Dale Lamphere.
Abbott also presented Siegenthaler with an honorary degree originally intended for Siegenthaler’s father prior to his death.
Earlier in the day, Siegenthaler participated in a panel discussion moderated by Gene Policinski, that featured Mary Jo Hotzler, vice president of content for Forum Communications Co., and Tim Schorn, USD political science professor.
Entitled “Are the news media helping or hurting politics?” the panel discussed whether presidential election coverage happens too early, the quality of media political coverage, the excess attention paid to more radical candidates and today’s overall reporting standards.
A question and answer session followed, during which USD Media & Journalism students asked questions on the group’s discussion.
(Photo: John M. Seigenthaler accepts the Al Neuharth Award for Excellence in the Media on Oct. 1. Mason Dockter / The Volante)