American Sociological Association

Ira Glass and This American Life

Ira Glass and "This American Life"

The ASA award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues honors individuals for their effective translation, promotion and dissemination of a wide range of information, including reporting that conveys a sociological perspective on social issues to the general public.  This year’s award honors Ira Glass and the producers of the radio program This American Life.  Each week, This American Life combines Glass’s long-standing interest in social issues with the story format in a revelatory sociological way, using immersive reporting and intimate interviews to show the backstage of social life.

Ira Glass began his career with NPR as an intern at age 19. Over his public radio career of some 30 years, he was a reporter and host on several NPR programs, including Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and Talk of the Nation.  During this period, he laid the foundation for a career of reporting social issues, doing extensive coverage of the Chicago Public School System.  Further, he credits his early work with radio pioneer Joe Frank’s show as the source of his inspiration that radio could be used to tell a certain kind of story.  

Since 1995, he has hosted and produced This American Life, which reaches over 1.7 million listeners a week on more than 500 stations.  The programs routinely involve sociologically informed storytelling.  The in-depth coverage in the weekly show is made possible by the collective efforts of This American Life’s accomplished team of reporters, producers, and editors, who invest great time and energy engaging in what Kristen Luker calls the “logic of discovery”—conducting fieldwork, analyzing findings, and crafting narratives imbued with sociological meaning.  For nearly two decades, this strategy has consistently produced programs that offer new and surprising insights into social issues from a diverse set of contributors.  Several sociologists have participated in the program, and the sociological imagination – the connection between biography and history, between individuals and social structures – animates every show.  

There have been shows about quantifying things that are hard to quantify, like love; about summer camp, and the mystery of its importance in many people’s lives; about people who find themselves in situations with no normative map; about America as seen through the eyes of new immigrants; about the role of television in everyday lives.  An early show considered class mobility through the stories of people trying to make something for nothing; another traced the 1973 American Psychiatric Association decision that homosexuality would no longer be considered a mental illness; another compiled stories of people who gave up firmly held beliefs.  Recently, “Act V” followed prison inmates, all murderers, through the casting, rehearsals, and performance of Hamlet, a play about murder and its consequences. In response to a letter from a 14 year old requesting a show about middle school, This American Life aired “Life in the Middle Ages,” a full hour probe into the physical, emotional, and social experiences of middle school students.  Having presented a program that highlighted the production of Apple devices central to the one-man theater performances of Michael Daisey, exposing the exploitation of foreign factory workers, Glass then later issued an on-air retraction, exposing the factual distortions in Mr. Daisey’s reporting.  This action generated new discussions about the boundaries between the creativity of theater and fact gathering in reporting.

The impact of This America Life is both broad and deep.  In 2007, Ira Glass and his producing team began airing a television version of the show on the Showtime network.  In 2009, Glass was named the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for Outstanding Contributions to Public Radio.  In 2011, he was awarded the George Polk Award in Radio Reporting for “Very Tough Love”, a This American Life program showing severe punishments handed down by a judge in a Georgia drug court, whose charge was to rehabilitate.  As a result of the This American Life investigation, ethical misconduct charges were brought against the judge, who stepped down.  Glass is not the only member of the This American Life team to win high honors for reporting.  The show’s producers include a Pulitzer Prize winner for human interest reporting and an Emmy winner for documentary television.

In honor of these outstanding achievements and many others, the 2013 award for Excellence in the Reporting of Social Issues goes to Ira Glass and the staff of This American Life.