When we look back at 2020 in the United States, three central themes stand out.
The coronavirus. The racial reckoning triggered by how some police treat people of color. And Donald Trump and the 2020 presidential election.
Those themes were reflected when the Pulitzer Prizes for journalism were announced on Friday. Well, except for the Trump part. Remarkably, after five years of the news cycle being dominated by the bombastic president, Trump-related stories were scarcely noticeable among the finalists and winners of journalism’s top honors.
But in a year when our world dramatically and forever changed because of a once-in-a-hundred-year pandemic and the murder of a Black man in Minneapolis and a Black woman in Louisville at the hands of police, the dogged work of journalists to investigate, scrutinize, explain and analyze these transformative events will be remembered among the most impressive and important journalism of the year … and of all-time.
Pulitzer Prize Board co-chair Mindy Marqués González noted how journalists in 2020 were “pushed to the limits of their endurance.”
That was evident as newsrooms across the country shut down and reporters, often dealing with personal grief and stress of their own, worked remotely on some of the most important stories of their careers.
As COVID-19 raged throughout the world and the United States, where it has claimed the lives of nearly 600,000 Americans, news organizations big and small informed frightened citizens about a killer virus that shut down schools, businesses and anything resembling normalcy in our lives. While each of those news outlets did invaluable work, the Pulitzer Prize Board gave its top honor — the Public Service Pulitzer — to The New York Times for its “courageous, prescient and sweeping coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.”
The Times wasn’t the only outlet honored for its COVID-19 coverage. ProPublica’s coronavirus reporting was a finalist for the Public Service prize. The Atlantic’s Ed Yong — who became a must-read reporter for his definitive and what-might-happen-next insight — was among two winners in Explanatory Reporting. The Board called Yong’s work “lucid pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic that anticipated the course of the disease, synthesized complex challenges, illuminated the U.S. government’s failures and provided clear context for the challenges it posed.”
And in feature photography, Emilio Morenatti of the Associated Press was honored for a series of poignant photographs of the elderly struggling during the COVID-19 pandemic in Spain.
Our nation’s other dominant story — race in America and the systematic mistreatment of people of color by authorities, especially police — was the other major theme in this year’s Pulitzers.
For many, this racial reckoning began May 25, 2020, in Minneapolis. There, a police officer kneeled on the neck of a Black man, George Floyd, for more than nine minutes as Floyd cried out for his dead mother. Floyd died at the scene. And it’s fair to ask if many of us would have ever heard of Floyd and the injustice done that day had it not been for a teenager named Darnella Frazier, who bravely took out her phone and recorded what happened.
On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize Board took the rare step of awarding a Pulitzer to a citizen as Frazier was awarded a special citation for a video that sparked a national movement. The combination of Frazier’s quick-thinking and horrific video, along with news outlets getting that video before the eyes of Americans, led to an outpouring of outrage and protests across the country and globe that continue to have reverberations to this day.
The Pulitzer Prize Board cited Frazier for “courageously recording the murder of George Floyd, a video that spurred protests against police brutality around the world, highlighting the crucial role of citizens in journalists’ quest for truth and justice.”
Meanwhile, the local newspaper — The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune — was named winner of the Breaking News Reporting award for its coverage of the police murder of Floyd, which happened within miles of their offices. A finalist in Breaking News was the staff of The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, for reporting on the death of Breonna Taylor, who was shot and killed by police while in her home. The Courier-Journal’s work was also recognized as a finalist in the Public Service category.
The staff of Associated Press won in Breaking News Photography for capturing the country’s response to the murder of Floyd.
Police and its misuse of power extended beyond the cases of Floyd and Taylor, and reporters were there, too, to dig out those abuses and shine a light.
The Local Reporting Pulitzer went to Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi of the Tampa Bay Times for their reporting on a sheriff’s department that ran a secret operation digging into school grades and child welfare records in an attempt to profile school children. The department trampled on privacy and harassed families in a misguided attempt to predict crimes that had not even happened.
This reporting not only won many awards, including Friday’s Pulitzer, but led to significant change. The sheriff’s department has dropped the tactics that the Times uncovered in their project.
Meanwhile, the National Reporting Pulitzer went to The Marshall Project, Alabama Media Group, The Indianapolis Star and the Invisible Institute for a year-long investigation into K-9 units and the damage that police dogs inflict on citizens, including innocent victims.
The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Greene won for Editorial Writing for his editorials on policing, bail reform, prisons and mental health inside the Los Angeles criminal justice system.
Sharing the Explanatory Pulitzer with Yong, Reuters’ Andrew Chung, Lawrence Hurley, Andrea Januta, Jaimi Dowdell and Jackie Botts won for “an exhaustive examination, powered by data analysis of U.S. federal court cases, of the legal doctrine of ‘qualified immunity’ and how it shields police who use excessive force from prosecution.”
All of it, and other finalists, showed the importance of journalists covering police and the communities they serve.
Race, meanwhile, was the central theme in the work honored in the Commentary category. Michael Paul Williams of the Richmond Times-Dispatch won in Commentary for his writing about the dismantling of monuments honoring white supremacy in Richmond, the former capital of the Confederacy.
Meanwhile, one of the most anticipated and highly coveted of the Pulitzers is Feature Writing, and this year’s co-winners were not only worthy, but noteworthy in that they were both freelancers — meaning not on staff.
Mitchell S. Jackson, writing for Runner’s World, wrote a personal and thought-provoking piece about Ahmaud Arbery, the Black man pursued and then gunned down in broad daylight while jogging near Brunswick, Georgia.
Also winning in the Feature Writing category was Nadja Drost. This was notable for two reasons. First, as I mentioned, Drost was a freelance writer. But, even more noteworthy, her story appeared in California Sunday Magazine — a publication that appeared to have shut down in 2020. Drost’s remarkable and harrowing story was written while embedded with a group that was trying to migrate through the Darién Gap, one of the most dangerous migrant routes in the world.
For International Reporting, BuzzFeed News won its first-ever Pulitzer. Megha Rajagopalan, Alison Killing and Christo Buschek of BuzzFeed won for a series of stories that “used satellite imagery, architectural expertise and interviews with two dozen former prisoners to identify a vast new infrastructure built by the Chinese government for the mass detention of Muslims.”
In Criticism, The New York Times’ Wesley Morris won for criticism on the intersection of race and culture in America, including using his experience of growing a mustache. It was smart, and deserved a top prize in Criticism.
Journalism at its very best also exposes the kind of wrongdoing that impacts everyday people such as you and me. That example could be found in the Investigative Reporting category, where the Pulitzer went to Matt Rocheleau, Vernal Coleman, Laura Crimaldi, Evan Allen and Brendan McCarthy of The Boston Globe for “reporting that uncovered state governments’ systematic failure to share information about dangerous truck drivers.”
For the entire list of winners and finalists, click here.
All the work highlighted above and honored by the Pulitzer Prizes — especially regarding COVID-19 and race — shows the important roles journalists play as community watchdogs and public servants.
In other words, journalism matters.
This story will be updated.
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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.