Anyone who does journalism to win prizes is doing it wrong.
That said, there’s no shame in taking pride in a win.
Journalism prizes allow us to hit pause in this incredibly stressful profession to recognize that our reporting is making an impact. Maybe it’s helping keep people safe, or revealing abuses of power, or educating our fellow citizens about wrongdoing.
There’s no higher award in journalism than the Pulitzers, and this year’s awards offer several takeaways for student journalists, as well as teaching points for journalism educators.
Here’s what jumped out at me.
Question the cops
One of modern journalism’s core tenets is holding the powerful to account. For student journalists, that means doing the often scary and intimidating work of looking at an authority figure and saying, “How do I know what you are telling me is true?” Students’ authority figures might be university presidents, their own professors, or even campus or city cops.
To quell those nerves and see the importance of asking hard questions of powerful people, look no further than Pulitzer winner and finalist the Minneapolis Star Tribune and The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Kentucky, for their coverage of the killings of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor. In both cases, the original police narratives gave no indication of the true nature of the incidents. It brings to mind the quote “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” Start now and beat the rush — never simply accept the official narrative.
The board named two Feature Writing winners this year, an usual occurrence in one of the most prestigious categories. And both went to freelance journalists.
I suspect that increasingly, students will consider working for themselves, either as freelancers or niche journalism entrepreneurs. Professors and deans, are you prepared to help your students succeed as independent journalists? They will need to know not just how to write, photograph, film and edit; they’ll also need basic financial and marketing skills, an understanding of the nuance of pitching to multiple outlets, and the value of building and maintaining audiences and networks.
Know the rules before you break them
Having an imperishable appreciation of grammar and language will help you rise to the top in any news organization and among audiences — people like to read beautiful writing. But sometimes breaking the rules helps you advance the narrative incredibly effectively.
Look how the Boston Globe compels you to read more by using a sentence fragment in the lead of its series on dangerous drivers, “Blind Spot”: “(Christopher) Lucero’s death in April of 2017 was brutal and shocking. But the outrage it caused should be compounded by this: (Mustafa) Lynch could have been taken off the road long before the fatal collision. If only Massachusetts officials had opened the mail.”
So next time you get counted off for having a fragment in your writing, you can show your professor that doing so sometimes helps win Pulitzers.
Make hard things easy to understand
A skilled journalist learns to take complicated material and make it easy for audiences to understand. A great journalist makes it easy to understand and a pleasure to flow over the words (even on an unpleasant topic).
The Atlantic’s Ed Yong took the incredibly complicated facts around the pandemic and routinely made them accessible to everyone, which judges noted in awarding him one of two of this year’s Pulitzers for Explanatory Reporting. Take this sample from “Why the Coronavirus is So Confusing”: “SARS-CoV-2 is the virus. COVID-19 is the disease that it causes. The two aren’t the same. The disease arises from a combination of the virus and the person it infects, and the society that person belongs to. Some people who become infected never show any symptoms; others become so ill that they need ventilators. Early Chinese data suggested that severe and fatal illness occurs mostly in the elderly, but in the U.S. (and especially in the South), many middle-aged adults have been hospitalized, perhaps because they are more likely to have other chronic illnesses. The virus might vary little around the world, but the disease varies a lot.”
Here’s a sampling from the Reuters investigation, “Shielded”, which suggested that the Supreme Court is helping cops get away with murder: “In the cases it accepts, the court nearly always decides in favor of police. The high court has also put its thumb on the scale by repeatedly tweaking the process. It has allowed police to request immunity before all evidence has been presented. And if police are denied immunity, they can appeal immediately – an option unavailable to most other litigants, who typically must wait until after a final judgment to appeal.”
It’s simple and clear, but crackles with the perfect verbiage: “thumb on the scale,” “tweaking,” “litigants.”
Always get the name of the dog … handler
I’ll close with this remarkable collaboration — Mauled: When police dogs are weapons” — from The Marshall Project, AL.com, The Indianapolis Star and the Invisible Institute in Chicago. I’m sure they’re too busy celebrating this win to DM me back, but I’d really love to find out exactly how they got the idea to look into incidents of police dog violence.
To me, it’s a great example of how we in American society sometimes don’t see obvious areas of potential conflict. We allowed ourselves to be carried away by the narrative of hero police dogs, proudly fighting crime for their brave cop owners. The truth can be much more insidious, as revealed by the hundreds of people who’ve been attacked or mauled by trained police dogs.
It’s a great reminder to all of us, but especially students, that good journalists should always consider what’s happening when we’re not around to see it. Examine the world with a sense of deep curiosity and constantly ask yourself, “What don’t I know?”
A healthy mix of skepticism, curiosity and tenacity will make you a better journalist, and who knows? Maybe one day your name will be on the Pulitzer’s winner’s list.
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Correction: The Courier-Journal is based in Louisville, Kentucky, not Lexington. We apologize for the unintentional 80-mile move east.