With so many respected newsrooms still adjusting to having the president call them “enemy of the American people,” next week’s announcement of the 2017 Pulitzer Prizes feels like a showdown. What will the winning journalism say about the press’ value to the public?
We’re about to find out.
Pulitzer selections reflect a closed-door, two-step process at New York’s Columbia University, which administers the prizes. Jurors from around the country met in late February to nominate finalists from among 1,187 journalism entries, up slightly from 2016. Finalists go to the 18-member Pulitzer board late this week, with its winner and finalist choices being revealed at 3 p.m. Eastern on Monday.
Poynter, as it does each year in preparing this preview, scans the work that other contests have honored in the run-up to the Pulitzers — the nation’s oldest annual awards, which celebrated their centennial last year. (The prizes recognize winners in 14 journalism categories, along with the best work in seven classifications of letters and the arts.)
For the most part, the earlier journalism competitions recognize work under a broader array of reporting, opinion-writing and photography classifications. Thus the relative handful of journalism Pulitzers is seen as marking the best of the best — naming winners only for Public Service; Investigative, Breaking News, Explanatory, and Local, National and International Reporting; Breaking News and Feature Photography; Feature Writing; Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning. (This preview concentrates on news-based prize prospects, which are somewhat less subjective.)
Special attention next Monday likely will focus on the work of journalists covering 2016’s biggest story: the presidential campaign and upset victory by Donald Trump. And some potential winners or finalists from that campaign trail reporting have already won big.
Long Island University’s George Polk Awards this February named The Washington Post’s David Fahrenthold the winner in its Political Reporting category. Fahrenthold’s investigations, which also won him the Robin Toner Prize from Syracuse University, detailed deception in charitable giving patterns involving the Trump Foundation and helped bring to light video of the candidate using crude language in talking about women.
Fahrenthold’s acceptance speech said much about his drive to understand candidate Trump’s approach to charity — and the encouragement the reporter got in his campaign assignment from Post Executive Editor Marty Baron.
The Polks also gave ProPublica’s Alec MacGillis the National Reporting prize based on his work during the campaign. He identified trends among voters in Rust Belt states that “the political establishment ignored, dismissed or overlooked,” according to the Polks. In addition, the Scripps Howard Foundation’s awards, which were announced in early March, honored MacGillis’s work with an award titled the “Topic of the Year.”
Still, relatively little campaign-related coverage has received prizes so far this year, and most of the major investigative category winners have involved regional, rather than national stories. One Scripps investigative award went to an Atlanta Journal-Constitution team for “Doctors & Sex Abuse,” a study of the medical profession’s cover-ups of patient abuse in Georgia. A Scripps Environmental Reporting prize, however, did go to Rob Davis of The Oregonian for “Toxic Armories,” an 18-month study that focused on health hazards in National Guard facilities across the U.S. after decades of operations.
The Selden Ring Award, a prize from the University of Southern California Annenberg School devoted exclusively to investigative journalism, honored the Houston Chronicle’s Brian Rosenthal for a series called “Denied,” about Texas state educators who kept special education services from disabled students. (Rosenthal’s work also won a Polk Award for Education Reporting.)
A team from the Sarasota Herald-Tribune was a Ring finalist for “Bias on the Bench,” which detailed unequal treatment of black and white defendants in Florida. And another finalist, West Virginia’s Charleston Gazette-Mail, was cited for its stories explaining the role of the pharmaceutical industry in the opioid abuse crisis in the state. (The Gazette-Mail’s work also won a Scripps First Amendment award.)
The Selden Ring winner and finalists often turn up on Pulitzer day, and that is also true of work honored by the Goldsmith Prize competition held by the Shorenstein Center of Harvard’s Kennedy School. This year, Mother Jones reporter Shane Bauer won the Goldsmith for his report, “My Four Months as a Private Prison Guard,” based on his experiences in a Corrections Corp. of America facility at Winnfield, La.
The Goldsmith finalists were a Wall Street Journal team that produced “The Downfall of Theranos,” work revealing blood-testing abuses at a major medical startup; a Chicago Tribune team that produced “Dangerous Doses,” about pharmacies ignoring patient-drug interactions; the Los Angeles Times’ David Cloud, for breaking a California National Guard enlistment-bonus scandal; the Sarasota Herald-Tribune’s “Bias on the Bench” team, and the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s “Doctors & Sex Abuse” team.
The prize money awarded for Selden Ring and Goldsmith winners is the largest among journalism awards: $35,000 and $25,000, respectively. This year the Pulitzers have increased the cash that winners get by 50 percent, to $15,000 — all except the coveted Public Service Pulitzer, which still comes with a gold medal and no cash.
Predicting the Public Service medal winner can be particularly difficult, because the Pulitzer board seems to seek variety in that category and often focuses on the measurable impact of the work it honors. In describing the results of the “Seafood from Slaves” exposé that won the 2016 medal, The Associated Press noted that 2,000 captive workers were freed because of the AP’s revelation of human rights abuses in Pacific fishing operations.
Among the most celebrated international reporting eligible this year is the “Panama Papers” series by the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists and other news organizations. The work was done by more than 400 reporters from media organizations in scores of countries, with their reports analyzing leaked documents that presented material from the files of a global law firm in the Central American country. The leaked records revealed how individuals and companies around the world hid assets in massive offshore accounts. The Panama project won both a Polk for Financial Reporting and a Scripps award for Business/Economics Reporting.
Breaking News journalism honored this year has included the work of California’s East Bay Times, which received the Scripps award for coverage of Oakland’s Ghost Ship Fire, in which it quickly pieced together evidence of code violations and possible causes of the deadly fire that killed 36 people.
The American Society of News Editors hasn’t yet announced its contest winners for 2017, but it named the East Bay Times a finalist in Breaking News. It also named the Dallas Morning News, for coverage of the July 7 ambush of police in the city, and The Advocate of Baton Rouge, Louisiana, for its reporting on a July 17 police ambush there. ASNE’s finalists for public service were The Boston Globe, for “The Desperate and the Dead,” a Spotlight Team study of a mental health crisis in Massachusetts, along with The Houston Chronicle for its “Denied” series, and The Sarasota Herald-Tribune for “Bias on the Bench.”
Awards from Investigative Reporters and Editors also are expected to be announced before the Pulitzer revelations are made.
In Photojournalism, Daniel Berehulak of The New York Times won a Polk for “They Are Slaughtering Us Like Animals,” a photo essay on Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte’s murderous drug crackdown. The ASNE’s nominees in photojournalism also included The Dallas Morning News photo staff for its work covering the Dallas ambush.
Magazines, which were allowed to enter in all categories for the first time this year, drew 146 submissions, just over 12 percent of all entries, Pulitzer Prize administrator Mike Pride said. Clearly, magazines could be a larger factor for 2017 Pulitzers, a competition that once barred them. In 2016, journalists writing in The New Yorker won both the Feature Writing and Criticism prizes. (This year’s National Magazine Award winners were announced in February.)
Pride, who’ll announce the winners and finalists on Monday for the last time, has announced that he is retiring this year after three years as administrator. The Pulitzers have launched a search for a new administrator.