MISSOULA – Denise Dowling, longtime broadcast journalist, journalism professor and two-time interim dean of the University of Montana School of Journalism, has won a prestigious national award from the Society of Professional Journalists for her radio documentary “Alex, Not Amy: Growing Up Transgender in the Rural West.”
The documentary follows the story of 10-year-old Alex O’Neill, who knew he was a boy when he was a toddler, as he changes his gender legally and socially. Listeners get to know Alex and his family as they navigate issues like which swim team Alex competes on and which bathroom he uses while he’s at school.
The story looks at the policy, history, mental health concerns and trends around transgender youth. But, it’s about much more too – it’s a story about family, identity, community and belonging.
Dowling’s piece, which originally aired on Montana Public Radio, also was named a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner recently by the Radio Television Digital News Association and is now under consideration for a National Murrow Award as well. In addition, the documentary was named a finalist for an E.B. Craney Award from the Montana Broadcasters Association and the Greater Montana Foundation in the Radio Non-Commercial Program of the Year category.
The Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Awards recognize the best in professional journalism in categories covering print, radio, television, newsletters, art/graphics, online and research. This year’s winners will be honored during a June ceremony in Washington, D.C.
Regional stations in South Dakota, Utah, Idaho, Wyoming and North Dakota picked up the documentary. Producer Skip Wood at Prairie Public Radio in North Dakota called the piece, “Top notch. Heartwarming. Positive. Important.”
Dowling said she first became interested in the challenges of being young and transgender when one of her students shared the roadblocks he met when transitioning.
“When I began reporting, I found it remarkable just how many young people and their families were facing similar paths,” she said. “Alex, his parents and siblings were incredibly gracious to allow me into their lives to document his transition. They welcomed me into some of their most private moments as I followed Alex and his journey over three years. I learned so much from them and saw firsthand how family support makes all the difference in a transgender child’s mental health.”
Dowling wanted to document Alex’s story while sharing valuable information about the issue with the public.
"There’s a dearth of empirical research parents, educators and others can turn to for guidance,” she said. “I spoke to researchers, doctors, educators and attorneys to learn about the particular challenges these kids face in society. The documentary shares that information in hopes that other families and all of us can help transgender youth find a successful future."
The piece was made possible through funding from the UM School of Journalism and the UM Faculty Research Fund, with special thanks to Montana Public Radio.