Denise Dowling, long-time reporter, 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.”

Dowling’s piece, which originally aired on Montana Public Radio, was also named a Regional Edward R. Murrow Award winner this week by the Radio Television Digital News Association. That means it is now under consideration for a National Murrow Award as well. Earlier this month, the documentary was also 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 in a ceremony in June in Washington D.C.

Dowling’s 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 or 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.

Regional stations also picked up the documentary and one 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 on campus 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 first-hand how family support makes all the difference in a transgender child’s mental health.”

For Dowling, the story was about documenting Alex’s story, but also sharing valuable information with the public about the issue.

“I also gained knowledge from speaking to researchers, doctors, educators and attorneys about transgender youth. The documentary shares that information in hopes that other families can find help in supporting transgender youth,” she said. “And I hope it opens all our eyes to this hidden population and what we can do to help transgender kids find their way to a successful future.”

The piece was made possible through funding from the School of Journalism and the University of Montana’s Faculty Research Fund, with special thanks to Montana Public Radio.

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