Here’s a twist on an old saying in the news business: Do you want good government or good journalism?
More accurately, don’t you want critically important news stories?
Sadly, bad government — defined by corruption, failed promises, hypocrisy and dishonesty — exists far too much. And that makes good dogged journalism, especially at a local level, more critically important than ever.
If there was one theme that stood out among the winners of this year’s Pulitzer Prizes it’s that local journalism can still make a difference in the lives of everyday people.
As expected, this year’s Pulitzers recognized the brave work being done to cover the war in Ukraine, as well as the ramifications of the Supreme Court’s decision to overturn Roe v. Wade.
But the Pulitzers’ spotlight was on local news.
Imagine if local journalism didn’t exist.
Then, perhaps, we wouldn’t know about the secretly recorded and disturbing conversations among city officials in Los Angeles that included racist comments and the impact it had on local politics. But the staff of the Los Angeles Times alerted citizens to those recordings. Their efforts won a Pulitzer in Breaking News.
Without local journalism, the people of Miami might not have remembered how Florida public officials failed to deliver on promises for many taxpayer-funded amenities made over decades. The editorial board of the Miami Herald was among those snookered by these officials, often endorsing candidates who failed to deliver on their promises. To right that wrong, the Herald’s Nancy Ancrum, Amy Driscoll, Luisa Yanez, Isadora Rangel and Lauren Costantino wrote a series of editorials about the failed promises of local leaders. For that, they won a Pulitzer in the Editorial Writing category.
Without local journalism, the police force in the town of Brookside, Alabama, might still be preying on city residents to increase city revenue. But the fine work of AL.com’s John Archibald, Ashley Remkus, Ramsey Archibald and Challen Stephens uncovered the scandalous behavior and led to the resignation of the police chief, a state audit and, even more impactful, four new laws.
That work also led to a well-earned Pulitzer in Local Reporting.
But it wasn’t the only Local Reporting Pulitzer. The scandal involving NFL legendary quarterback Brett Favre was the subject of Pulitzer Prize-winning work from Mississippi Today’s Anna Wolfe. Her work revealed how the former governor of Mississippi used his office to steer millions of dollars away from those who needed it the most, those in the state welfare system, and into the pockets of family and friends. Those friends included Favre, who wanted a new volleyball arena for his alma mater, Southern Mississippi, where his daughter was on the team at the time.
Again, it was local reporting that uncovered all this malfeasance.
And there was more. AL.com won a second Pulitzer, this one going to Kyle Whitmire in Commentary. His columns documented how Alabama’s Confederate heritage, with all of its racism and exclusion, still holds a major place in the state — in the year 2022 (!) and beyond.
Even during a time of massive layoffs and decreasing resources, local news continues to provide an invaluable service daily across the nation. And while news organizations are in the news business and not the let’s-win-awards business, it’s heartening to see such work honored with journalism’s highest honor.
“At a time when the media business is abuzz with excitement and anxiety about powerful new tech tools,” said Neil Brown, Poynter president and co-chair of the Pulitzer Prize Board, “there is nothing — nothing — artificial about the courageous reporting and storytelling the Pulitzer Prizes honors today. Journalism is a differentiator, not a commodity.”
In the announcement that was livestreamed Monday afternoon, Brown also used another word that described this year’s Pulitzer Prizes: “Brave.”
That courage was never more evident in 2022 than in the journalism that showed the world the devastating effects of the war in Ukraine.
The Pulitzer for Public Service — perhaps the most prestigious award in all of journalism — went to The Associated Press and journalists Mstyslav Chernov, Evgeniy Maloletka, Vasilisa Stepanenko and Lori Hinnant during the attack on Mariupol, Ukraine. Pinned down in a besieged city, the journalists were able to show the world the slaughter of civilians during Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.
The staff of The New York Times won an International Reporting Pulitzer for its coverage of the war, including an eight-month investigation into Ukrainian deaths in the town of Bucha.
Meanwhile, the most jarring coverage of the war has come from the images themselves. Lynsey Addario was a finalist in Breaking News Photography for a single, haunting image: a Ukrainian mother, her two children and a church member lying dead on the street. The four were supposedly in a “safe passage” area but were hit by a mortar shell. Addario’s photo showed the world that Russia was attacking civilians.
So did the photos from the staff of the AP in work that was recognized with the Pulitzer for Breaking News Photography. That included, perhaps, the most lasting and horrific image of the war so far — a pregnant woman who later died being carried on a stretcher after the maternity ward where she was hospitalized was attacked by Russian shells.
The big news story in the United States in 2022 was the Supreme Court overturning Roe v. Wade. In a mild surprise, the scoop of the year — an early draft of the court’s decision to overturn the federally protected right — by Politico’s Josh Gerstein, Alex Ward, Peter S. Canellos, Hailey Fuchs and Heidi Przybyla did not win a Pulitzer. It was a finalist in the Breaking News Reporting category.
However, The Washington Post’s Caroline Kitchener won the National Reporting Pulitzer for her coverage of the impact of the overturning of Roe v. Wade had on women, including a Texas teenager who gave birth to twins after new restrictions denied her an abortion.
Pregnancy also was the focus of photographer Christina House of the Los Angeles Times. House won the Feature Photography award for her intimate look into the life of a 22-year-old pregnant woman living in a tent on the street. The Pulitzer Board said the images “showed her emotional vulnerability as she tries and ultimately loses the struggle to raise her child.”
The most powerful, heartbreaking and infuriating story of 2022 might have been Caitlin Dickerson’s exhaustive and detailed account of the Trump administration’s policy that forcefully separated children from their parents — and its lingering aftereffects under the current administration. Dickerson was awarded the Pulitzer in Explanatory Reporting.
The staff of The Wall Street Journal won for Investigative Reporting for its detailed account of the financial conflicts of interest among officials at 50 federal agencies — a classic example of reporting that looks out for the public’s interest.
The Feature Writing Pulitzer went to Eli Saslow. He’s now at The New York Times, but he won for his features in The Washington Post about contemporary America and individuals struggling with such issues as the pandemic, homelessness, addiction and inequality.
The unflinching and brutally honest Andrea Long Chu, the book critic for New York Magazine, won for Criticism. Do yourself a favor and just Google some of her reviews for really interesting writing more than worthy of a Pulitzer.
Meanwhile, in the relatively new category of Audio Reporting, Gimlet Media and Connie Walker won the Pulitzer for “Stolen.” Here is how Gimlet describes it: “Last May, investigative journalist Connie Walker came upon a story about her late father she’d never heard before. One night back in the late 1970s while he was working as an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, he pulled over a suspected drunk driver. He walked up to the vehicle and came face-to-face with a ghost from his past — a residential school priest. What happened on the road that night set in motion an investigation that would send Connie deep into her own past, trying to uncover the secrets of her family and the legacy of trauma passed down through the generations.”
And in Illustrated Reporting and Commentary, Mona Chalabi won for combining statistical reporting with analysis to understand the enormous wealth of Amazon founder Jeff Bezos. It’s a wonderfully animated and yet completely informative story. Do yourself a favor and click on it. It’s just fun.
In the end, Monday’s Pulitzer announcement is one that really isn’t about who won the awards, but the celebration of journalism — from halfway around the world in Ukraine to our nation’s capital to our local police departments or city councils.
The journalism celebrated was, as we’ve described it, brave and insightful and informative and even fun.
But most of all, it was important.
More Pulitzer coverage from Poynter
- Here are the winners of the 2023 Pulitzer Prizes
- AP wins the Breaking News Photography Pulitzer Prize for its coverage of first weeks of the Russian invasion of Ukraine
- Dangerous, devastating war reporting from Ukraine dominates the 2023 Pulitzers
- A breakdown of Jeff Bezos’ net worth wins the Pulitzer for Illustrated Reporting
- All roads lead to Alabama for the 2023 Pulitzers
- Here are some of our favorite 2023 Pulitzer celebration tweets
- Opinion | The Pulitzer goes to … Black introspection
- From the archives: Behind the Pulitzers: A look into the inner workings of journalism’s Super Bowl
- From the archives: How do you pronounce Pulitzer?