McDowell County documentary wins 2014 Peabody Award

West Virginia native Elaine McMillion discovered her film “Hollow” was the recipient of a Peabody Award, one of the highest honors a journalist can achieve.

“Hollow,” an interactive documentary project by West Virginia native Elaine McMillion Sheldon, is among the winners of the 73rd annual Peabody Award winners.

Winners of the award — regarded by some as the radio and television version of the Pulitzer Prize — were announced Wednesday morning.

“I was told a week ago they would be making the announcements today. They said they would be announcing it on (CBS This Morning),” she said.

Sheldon, 26, was driving Wednesday morning when some of the winners were announced, so she asked her parents to watch it for her. They didn’t hear her name, and emailed to say she didn’t win. But it turns out the anchors only announced a few of the winners.

Sheldon later found a complete list of winners on the Huffington Post and, scrolling down, spotted “Hollow” right above the hit Netflix series “House of Cards.”

“My mind has been blown ever since,” she said.

Sheldon submitted “Hollow” to the Peabody Awards in January, “thinking my chances were pretty low because most of the people that win are with networks or affiliated with some corporation.

“I never thought we’d be in the same list as ‘Breaking Bad’ and ‘House of Cards.’”

Sheldon won’t be able to rub elbows with the stars, however.

She’s heading to Scotland and Albania to work on another film project in early May, so she won’t be able to attend the May 19 awards ceremony at the Waldorf-Astoria in New York City.

She’s trying to find another member of the “Hollow” team to attend.

The film recently won third place in World Press Photo’s annual interactive documentary contest, and was named a finalist for the 2014 South by Southwest Interactive People’ Choice Award.

Last year, the documentary was accepted as part of the New York Film Festival, Camden International Film Festival and the International Documentary Festival of Amsterdam’s “Doc Lab.”

Sheldon, a former Charleston Daily Mail intern, began work on “Hollow” in 2011. (The film’s associate producer, Tricia Fulks of Bridgeport, also contributes to the Daily Mail.)

She spent about five months in McDowell County in 2013 before moving to Boston to edit the film.

She said it was difficult at first to get noticed, but enthusiasm for the project has grown and grown ever since.

“It’s super gratifying. I never expected it would win these awards. I did it because I knew it was a passion project,” she said.

The documentary chronicles life in McDowell County by focusing on 30 of the 20,000 residents who remain in the poverty-stricken area. For various reasons, these people have chosen to remain in their home county while thousands have fled for better opportunities.

Unlike a traditional documentary, the “Hollow” website allows users to jump between subjects and story lines.

That’s part of the project’s appeal, Sheldon said.

“The innovation behind it . . . has really helped to bring these stories to this scale,” she said.

But the appeal of “Hollow” is broader than that. The project explores the concept of home, and what it’s like when that home disappears. Sheldon said that’s a universal topic, one that many people can relate to.

She said all the awards and attention are good for McDowell County, because it increases their desire to change things.

“The more attention the project gets, the more pressure is put on the residents to do what they say they wanted to do in the documentary,” she said. “I got a message yesterday from a McDowell County resident, saying ‘Thanks for waking us up.’”

Sheldon is now working with a university library to help host the “Hollow” website and make it part of its permanent collection. She only raised enough money to host the site through the end of next month.

The documentary has been free to viewers since it launched, and she wants to keep it that way.

Other West Virginians to contribute to the film include Bridgeport native Megan Bowers, Fairmont native Michelle Miller, Sistersville native Eric Lovell, Kerrin Sheldon of Morgantown, Billy Wolfe of Charleston and Paden City native Jason Headley.

To watch Hollow, visit

Contact writer Zack Harold at 304-348-4830 or Follow him on Twitter at

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