June 10, 2021

Three themes dominated American journalism in 2020: A global pandemic that killed hundreds of thousands here and otherwise uprooted normal life. President Donald Trump embroiled in nearly nonstop controversy, ending with a failed bid for a second term. And raging debate over the death of Black Americans at the hands of law enforcement, often focused on the possibility that a Minneapolis cop could be convicted of murdering George Floyd.

On Friday at 1 p.m. Eastern, the 2021 Pulitzer Prizes will livestream their announcement of journalists who are winners or finalists for work that appeared in the previous calendar year. Many of them likely will have broken news about the pandemic, the presidency and policing abuses — or helped Americans better understand them.

For the Pulitzers, which also honor excellence in arts and letters, choosing the awards in 15 journalism categories will mark a return to in-person selection after last year’s process was forced by COVID-19 to be managed virtually.

In the first phase of the two-step Pulitzer selection process, juries in each category did meet via Zoom, in February, according to interim Pulitzer administrator Bud Kliment. But the 19-member Pulitzer Board convenes in person Monday and Tuesday to decide on the winners. And board co-chairs Mindy Marqués González and Stephen Engelberg will host on Friday.

“The year’s events demonstrated the value of timely, accurate reporting and the crucial role the media play in our democracy,” said Engelberg, editor-in-chief of ProPublica, in remarks emailed to Poynter. “There has never been a moment in the history of our republic in which impartial, deeply reported and documented journalism was more needed.”

Gonzalez, a former Miami Herald executive editor now with publisher Simon and Schuster, added, in 2020 “the nation’s news organizations faced the complexity of sequentially covering a global pandemic, a racial reckoning, and a bitterly contested presidential election,” pushing many journalists “to the limits of their endurance.” Across the country, she said, “newsrooms large and small rose to the occasion.” (Last year’s Poynter preview appeared in two parts because of COVID-related delays in the Pulitzer decision process.)

How we picked

This preview examines the results of earlier media competitions, to give a sense for what might win in the 105-year-old granddaddy of the prizes established by press pioneer Joseph Pulitzer and administered by New York’s Columbia University. The two-stage selection process — with each Pulitzer category’s jurors sending choices to the board for the final designation, typically one winner and two finalists — is kept secret.

Our preview considers likely candidates for six of the news-based journalism categories: Public Service; Breaking News and Explanatory Reporting; Local, National and International Reporting. Not considered are candidates in the photography categories, and Feature Writing, Commentary, Editorial Writing, Criticism and Audio Reporting. (Poynter president Neil Brown, a Pulitzer Board member, wasn’t consulted for this story.)

On one level, our preview is little more than a guessing game based on what work has been recognized in other contests. The Pulitzers, after all, have their own unique way of judging entries. Rather than predict, however, the preview’s goal is to call attention to exemplary work that likely is in the running for this week’s Pulitzer recognition.

Because the Pulitzers consider entries on a calendar-year basis, coverage related to this year’s Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol by enraged Trump supporters — and the insurrection’s controversial political aftermath — will have to wait until 2022 for prize consideration. Much reporting from Trump’s final year in office, however, certainly was on this year’s Pulitzer radar.

Work that could win

The Scripps Howard Awards and the George Polk Awards, on April 21 and Feb. 24, respectively, honored New York Times reporters Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire for “The President’s Taxes,” based on the team’s acquisition and analysis of the Trump income tax information he’d kept from the public — in a break with presidential tradition. Scripps named the project in its business-and-financial reporting category; the Polks in financial reporting. (Earlier Times reports on Trump finances won a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting in 2019.)

In other Polk awards, The Washington Post’s Stephanie McCrummen won in political reporting for, among other things, “deftly capturing Georgia’s shifting political winds” as the election approached, with that hotly contested state being a focal point. Scripps gave McCrummen its human-interest storytelling prize for her work.

Reports about police abuses involving people of color got plenty of attention, too, from Scripps and Polk. Both award programs, along with the Online News Association Awards, honored The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune for “The Killing of George Floyd,” which Scripps called “a local news story that quickly became the global epicenter of America’s long struggle with racial inequality and injustice.” The Polks also honored The Washington Post in justice reporting for its six-part series “George Floyd’s America.”

Among other prizes recognizing law enforcement coverage, an NLA Award from the News Leaders Association went to The New York Times staff for “I Can’t Breathe,” which NLA called “exhaustive and ground-breaking reporting using data, documents, interviews and video (to reveal) that police misconduct has been pervasive throughout the United States for decades.”

Several competitions recognized work that examined national and global elements of the pandemic, with the Polks honoring a half-dozen such entries. One impressive Polk winner was Boston-based science and medical news site STAT, singling out reporter Helen Branswell, “for relentless coverage of all aspects of the pandemic that became must reading for the medical community and the general public.”

Polks also named Dan Diamond of Politico for “multiple accounts of Trump Administration interference with the Centers for Disease Control and other sources of medical and scientific expertise,” and Ed Yong of The Atlantic for “clear and insightful analysis of factors behind the spread of Covid-19 and failed efforts to bring it under control.”

And Polk awards also cited ProPublica in health reporting, for “examining the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans and meatpacking workers”; The Washington Post for Eli Saslow’s oral history project, “Voices from the Pandemic”; and California Sunday Magazine’s Katie Engelhart for her focus on the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, which had among the nation’s earliest COVID-19 outbreaks.

The News Leaders gave an NLA Award for COVID-19 coverage to Kaiser Health News and The Guardian for “Lost on the Frontline,” a collaboration that the NLA citation called the pandemic’s “most complete accounting of medical staff deaths in the U.S.” A Scripps award for innovation went to The Washington Post for “Flatten the Curve,” a feature explaining how viruses spread and how they can be mitigated or stopped. Another Scripps winner was Derrick Z. Jackson of the Union of Concerned Scientists and Grist for “Tried to Warn You,” analyzing the pandemic’s politicization, and its effect on people of color.

One candidate for an International Reporting Pulitzer likely is “Fruits of Labor,” an expose of abuses in the palm oil industry examining dangerous conditions faced by laborers on Indonesian and Malaysian plantations. An Associated Press team of Margie Mason and Robin McDowell produced it. And their honors so far include two of the nation’s richest prizes: the $50,000 Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, and the $20,000 Worth Bingham Prize from Harvard University’s Nieman Foundation. (Each Pulitzer comes with $15,000, except for Public Service, which brings the winning publication a gold medal.)

Five years ago, Mason and McDowell were part of an AP team that won the Pulitzer for Public Service in 2016 for its “Seafood from Slaves” series, which explored the use of forced labor in the global fishing industry that served U.S. markets.

Winners and finalists named by Investigative Reporters and Editors also sometimes serve as Pulitzer predictors. IRE gave Mason and McDowell’s palm oil expose and The Star Tribune’s “Killing of George Floyd” work top honors this year.

Among IRE’s other winners was The Indianapolis Star’s special project, “Careless,” which bucked strong government resistance in exposing public hospitals in Indiana for taking advantage of a Medicare program that was supposed to benefit nursing home residents. IRE also recognized High Country News, a Colorado-based nonprofit covering the Western U.S., for its project “Land Grab Universities.” That work revealed how many universities in the West had expropriated property belonging to Indigenous peoples through massive schemes.

Another IRE winner was “FinCEN Files,” by BuzzFeed News, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, “and more than 100 media partners around the world.” Reading like a strong Pulitzer International Reporting contender, it studied thousands of secret government records to show corrupt methods among banks that enable them to evade prosecution.

The timing for a formal Pulitzer presentation ceremony, which last took place at Columbia in May 2019, hasn’t been set yet. That “will be one of the many things discussed by the board at (this week’s) meeting,” interim administrator Kliment said. “Another benefit of the delay is that the winners may be more ready and able to celebrate.”

This story was originally published June 7, 2021.

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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, published in an updated edition…
More by Roy J. Harris Jr.

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