At the end of a live chat about the Pulitzer Prizes on the Washington Post’s website, a reader posed this question:
I’m really confused by the win for the NYT in the explanatory category. I followed that series very closely (I’m in the tax business) and the stories were rife with errors (some of which were corrected) or built on strawmen premises. So, from my perspective, they didn’t explain the tax situation well at all. How does the awards committee make these decisions? Are some subjects (like tax) such black holes that they are more easily impressed?
The Post Pulitzer chat that aired this criticism was hosted by Roy Harris, the author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism,” and an expert on the awards who often writes about them for Poynter.
Here’s part of his response to the reader’s concerns about the winning series, “But Nobody Pays That:”
How representative of this era for the American press that we end with a question that casts serious doubt on the quality of a reporting effort, as well as the judgment of the Pulitzer board.
David Kocieniewski of the New York Times wrote, in the board’s view, a “lucid series that penetrated a legal thicket to explain how the nation’s wealthiest citizens and corporations often exploited loopholes and avoided taxes.”
The entered stories ran from March 25 to Dec. 30 last year, so there was plenty of opportunity for objections to be raised. You note that there were corrections published, and certainly that would be taken into consideration by the jurors and the Pulitzer board.
Harris encouraged the reader to raise any lingering concerns with the Times’ public editor. (He also emailed me to draw my attention to this exchange.)
As background, the Pulitzers have in the past suffered scandals related to accuracy. (To be fair, it’s by no means a common occurrence.) Janet Cooke of the Post had her Pulitzer revoked after it was revealed her story was a fake.
The Pulitzer-winning work of former New York Times correspondent Walter Duranty has also been the subject of concern and outrage. He got to keep his award, though the Pulitzer Board noted in a 2003 press release that “Mr. Duranty’s 1931 work, measured by today’s standards for foreign reporting, falls seriously short.”
Now, let’s be clear: the winning series of articles by New York Times business reporter David Kocieniewski is in no way comparable to the aforementioned scandals. That’s not what the reader alleged.
Rather, the suggestion was the series didn’t live up to the billing of being “explanatory,” and that it suffered from errors.
For the latter charge, I of course went looking to see how many corrections were made to articles in the winning series.
There was one.
Specifically, one correction for three errors in one out of seven stories published in the series.
(A search in Nexis for other corrections to Kocieniewski’s work over the past two years turned up nine corrections out of a total of 62 articles with his byline. It seems that over the last two years he’s had roughly one in seven articles corrected — a stat that held up in the winning series.)
Here’s the correction to a November 2011 article, “A Family’s Billions, Artfully Sheltered“:
An article on Nov. 26 about the tax strategies used by the businessman and philanthropist Ronald S. Lauder referred imprecisely to the tax treatment of art in commercial settings. While the purchase of decorative art or lease payments on rented art may be deducted or depreciated as a business expense, the cost of acquiring fine art like the examples in Mr. Lauder’s collection is generally not deductible. The article also misidentified the previous owner of the Fifth Avenue mansion that is now the Neue Galerie. It was owned by Grace Wilson Vanderbilt, the widow of Cornelius Vanderbilt III, not by Cornelia Vanderbilt. Also, a picture with an earlier version of this article was published in error. It showed a house owned by Leonard A. Lauder in Palm Beach, Fla., not the one owned by Ronald S. Lauder.
Reading that correction, I wouldn’t expect the jury or Pulitzer Board to be alarmed at the mistakes. The other articles were correction-free, which would likely be of comfort to those deciding the awards.
Still, the exchange in the Post chat led me to follow up with Harris to see if there was more he could add about how errors/corrections might factor in to the evaluation of submissions.
“I’ve never been a Pulitzer juror, and, of course, not a Pulitzer Board member, either,” he said in an email. “Each jury is an individual (and generally secretive) group. But from those I’ve talked to, I’d say that Pulitzer jurors probably would be very tough on a story that came in with a major correction.”
There are no specific rules about disqualifying a work just because it contained factual errors. Indeed, there shouldn’t be such a rule.
The Pulitzers also do not have hard and fast criteria. “It is left up to the Nominating Juries and The Pulitzer Prize Board to determine exactly what makes a work ‘distinguished,’” according to the Pulitzer FAQ.
What seems reasonable is for judges to pay close attention to corrections to see what was incorrect, and to determine if the news organization and journalist have been accountable, ethical and professional in their actions.
On that point, the Pulitzers are fairly clear, stating [PDF] “entries must be based on material coming from a United States newspaper or news site … that adheres to the highest journalistic principles.”