The news stories that won Pulitzer Prizes this week show the benefits of having journalists free to tediously dig through records, analyze volumes of data, interview sources under dangerous circumstances and widely share their findings. They show how good journalism can help people understand issues that directly impact their lives. They show the power of truthful information and the need for someone to uncover it.
The work also undermines pronouncements that news is fake and journalists are enemies of their fellow citizens. It shows the relevance of a free press that continues to work on behalf of the public even as it is disliked, distrusted and disparaged.
Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy assured us before announcing the winners that this important work is in no danger of ending.
“Of course the press will endure, because, as the founding fathers knew well, there can be no democracy without it,” Canedy said.
The work of journalists honored this year led to legislation in Missouri to stop courts from threatening poor defendants with jail time and fueled support for a change in the Louisiana constitution that ended the practice of allowing juries to convict defendants without unanimous verdicts.
Courageous reporting of military-sponsored killings of Rohingya Muslims landed two journalists in a Myanmar prison. And photographers produced a “vivid and startling visual narrative of the urgency, desperation and sadness” of migrants pouring into the United States from Central and South America, according to Pulitzer jurors.
The honored work revealed the truth, even if it was painful to hear.
In Parkland, Florida, residents were getting little information from the school district about how a troubled former Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School student managed to get into the school and kill 17 people. Residents wanted to know if there were problems that needed to be corrected so nothing this horrible would happen again.
Several detailed stories in the South Florida Sun Sentinel, based in part on school and police records, video and witness statements, revealed the uncomfortable truth: A series of “blunders, bad policies, sketchy training and poor leadership” at the school district and sheriff’s department helped the gunman succeed. According to the newspaper, Broward County Public Schools “delayed or withheld records, refused to publicly assess the role of employees, spread misinformation and even sought to jail reporters who published the truth.”
St. Louis Post-Dispatch columnist Tony Messenger told stories of residents in rural Missouri counties who were thrown in jail because they couldn’t afford the bills the court sent to pay for their jail space and food. They included Nicholas McNab, who stole candy from a concession stand when he was 17 and briefly served jail time for his misdemeanor conviction. But a decade later, he still owes the court because every missed payment gets him more jail time and more money added to his debt. It also included Brooke Bergen, who stole an $8 mascara tube and now has a $15,000 jail bill.
The Advocate in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, focused newsgathering resources on the racial impact of the state’s unique law that allows jurors to find criminal defendants guilty even when some jurors vote to acquit. Most states require verdicts in criminal cases to be unanimous. The newspaper built a database to examine 3,000 jury trials in the state and found that African American defendants were 30% more likely than white defendants to be convicted with split verdicts.
The newspaper’s editorial staff was separately named a finalist for a Pulitzer in the editorial writing category. Pulitzer jurors cited the opinion staff for “persuasive editorials that prompted Louisiana voters to abolish a Jim Crow-era law that undermined equal justice in the jury system.”
Pulitzer jurors gave a special award to the staff of the Capital Gazette in Annapolis, Maryland, where a gunman entered the newspaper office and killed five employees. The award was for the staff’s “unflagging commitment to covering the news and serving their community at a time of unspeakable grief.”
Canedy said she drew hope about the future of impactful journalism from the work of student journalists at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High who submitted the obituaries they wrote of those who died during the massacre. The entry did not win. But optimism for journalism did.
“These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness — even in the most wrenching of circumstances — in service to a nation whose very existence depends on a free and dedicated press,” Canedy said.
Rod Hicks is Journalist on Call for the Society of Professional Journalists.