May 3, 2023

One approach to predicting the winner of a journalism Pulitzer Prize — our profession’s highest honor — is to study the past year’s most shocking events. Then, find a news organization that excelled in helping us understand those events better.

Through 2022, with the pandemic dimming as a global factor, the intensifying Ukraine war dominated much foreign reporting. (Last year, for what they had endured in 2021, “The Journalists of Ukraine” won a special Pulitzer citation.) In U.S. coverage, meanwhile, among 2022’s most important topics were the Uvalde, Texas, school shooting last May and the Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade’s abortion protections. (That’s not counting Donald Trump — whose time in the media spotlight, of course, has barely slipped since his 2020 presidential defeat by Joe Biden.)

Thus, as recognized by other competitions that name their winners in advance of the Pulitzers — the Columbia University-based granddaddy of U.S. awards, being announced on Monday at 3 p.m. Eastern — news organizations likely to emerge as Pulitzer winners or finalists include those that have brilliantly covered those and other major topics, foreign and domestic.

With more than 2,000 entries submitted in recent years, split about equally between the 14 journalism-based categories and the eight arts-and-letters categories, Pulitzer administrator Marjorie Miller tells Poynter that in her second year in the post, “There were a few dozen fewer journalism entries this year than last,” which she doesn’t consider a major change.

As to the variety of journalism entries for this 107th awarding of the Pulitzers, she notes that in recent years “we always get multiple entries around big stories of the year — a terror attack, a war, a pandemic, an election.” And she acknowledges that this year’s contenders “included the war in Ukraine, the Supreme Court and abortion, mass shootings” — and a wide range of other topics, of course.

How we chose

Poynter’s preannouncement look at Pulitzer prospects, now in its 13th year, focuses on work likely considered in one of six journalism categories: Public Service, Breaking News Reporting, Investigative Reporting, International Reporting, National Reporting and Local Reporting.

That leaves out the more subjective areas of Feature Writing, Illustrated Reporting and Commentary, Criticism and Editorial Writing, along with Breaking News Photography, Feature Photography and Audio Reporting. (Also excluded from our preview are the Pulitzers’ arts-and-letters categories: Fiction, Drama, History, Biography, Poetry, General Nonfiction and Music.)

The 18-member Pulitzer board’s determination of winners is made after juries in each category have narrowed the entries in an initial round of judging — generally into three finalists per category — with board members themselves making a final determination of winners. (Poynter president Neil Brown, a current Pulitzer board co-chair, wasn’t consulted for this article.)

Putin in the spotlight

Considering Ukraine coverage first, in our study of winners in competitions completed earlier, Long Island University’s George Polk Awards cited the extraordinary foreign coverage by New York Times reporter Roger Cohen leading to last March’s “The Making of Vladimir Putin,” followed by the Times’ December study “Putin’s War.” Meanwhile, Investigative Reporters and Editors gave its Tom Renner Award to an Oct. 26 report by The Associated Press and PBS “Frontline”: “Putin’s Attack on Ukraine: Documenting Russian War Crimes.”

Among other candidates for a Pulitzer in International Reporting — for very different types of projects — are The Washington Post’s August story “Amazon, Undone,” which won a Polk environmental reporting award for reporter Terrence McCoy, and a four-part Reuters team report in December, “Nightmare in Nigeria.” The Reuters series won the University of Southern California’s Selden Ring Award, with its $50,000 in cash, for Reuters’ detailing of human rights abuses against civilians by the African nation’s military.

Back in the U.S., coverage by the Austin American-Statesman of the Texas town of Uvalde’s May 24 massacre at Robb Elementary School was cited by Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation with an award for fairness in journalism. The Austin paper’s coverage, Nieman said, “exposed the deeply flawed and delayed response by law enforcement” that led to the high toll — 19 children and two teachers killed by semi-automatic rifle fire from an 18-year-old shooter. The shooter was killed by police only after they had waited 77 minutes before stopping the bloodshed. Nieman’s award cited the newspaper’s decision, with cooperation from Austin television station KVUE, to show video of the delayed police response.

The San Antonio Express-News and Houston Chronicle, working together to produce “Massacre in Uvalde,” also did exceptional work under pressure, to raise questions about the failure of law enforcement’s response, earning them an IRE award in the category “Investigations Triggered by Breaking News.”

IRE gave its Freedom of Information Award to The Washington Post for last Oct. 18’s “Foreign Servants” article, by Craig Whitlock and Nate Jones. The contest judges called it a “revelatory investigation that gave a lot of context as well as implications for national security.” And indeed, it exposed how more than 500 retired military employees, many of them generals and admirals, had taken jobs in foreign countries known for political repression and human rights abuses, including Saudi Arabia.

It’s the type of impactful story — with both U.S. and global implications — that might also be a candidate for the Pulitzers’ top award: the Public Service prize, which comes with the Pulitzer gold medal. Last year’s Pulitzer in that category also went to The Washington Post, for its coverage of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the Capitol.

Focus on the States

Major dailies’ efforts to break major stories about state-related affairs also got noticed nationally, as the competition for the University of Florida College of Journalism and Communication’s Collier Prize for State Government Accountability reporting showed in recent days. The Los Angeles Times took the top prize — and $25,000 — for a series by Harriet Ryan and Matt Hamilton about how the California bar association has concentrated disciplinary activities on penalizing minority lawyers.

Also, a Polk award for State Reporting went to a team of Reuters reporters for “Undocumented and Underage,” a yearlong effort showing how Alabama used fake documentation to build up commissions to “put migrant children as young as 12 to work in Hyundai auto parts factories and poultry slaughterhouses.”

In the Polks’ Political Reporting category, another award went to Miami Herald staffers Sarah Blaskey, Nicholas Nehamas, Ana Ceballos and Mary Ellen Klas for covering what the Polk judges called “the cruel calculus behind two flights taking 49 misled South American refugees from Texas to Martha’s Vineyard at the behest of Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.”

Winners of the Toner Prizes for political reporting, awarded earlier by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communications, often are candidates for Pulitzers. And 2023 likely was no exception. Politico won one Toner category for “The Supreme Court and Abortion,” an incisive May article based on Justice Samuel Alito’s draft opinion, which Politico had obtained, published and analyzed, showing that the court had voted to overturn the abortion rights it had guaranteed in 1973. The court decision was posted after Politico’s scoop.

One other journalistic collaboration that did well in competitions that were judged before the Pulitzers: “The Price Kids Pay,” in which Chicago Tribune and ProPublica reporters worked together to disclose how Illinois schools illegally levied monetary penalties against students for violation of school rules — violations often minor, and more often penalizing Black students. The story was reported by the Tribune’s Jennifer Smith Richards and Armando L. Sanchez, and ProPublica’s Jodi S. Cohen.

Of course, each award announcement from Columbia contains a number of Pulitzer surprises, owing to the secrecy of the process, and the wide range of entries. But over its 13 years in this Poynter space, our preview generally has had at least a few hits among its misses.

Correction: The mass shooting in Uvalde occurred on May 24, 2022. 

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Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter, is the author of Pulitzer's Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism. Among his contributions to Poynter…
Roy J. Harris Jr.

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