Pulitzer Preview: Will this year’s Pulitzers join the #MeToo movement?

Every few years a dominant story — brilliantly handled — emerges as front-runner for the year’s top journalism Pulitzer Prize: the Public Service gold medal. In 2003 it was the Boston Globe exposing the Catholic Church coverup of sexual abuse of youngsters by priests. In 2014, it was the Guardian-US website and Washington Post exploring National Security Administration domestic spying, based on Edward Snowden’s leaks.

This could be another such a year for the front-runner to win.

Amid the mind-boggling series of exclusives coming from Washington, and often focused on President Donald Trump’s White House, perhaps 2017’s most impactful work was reporting that created a groundswell out of the phenomenon so widely described now by #MeToo and #TimesUp.

And that may make the real Pulitzer question: Will the prize go to the New York Times alone for its “Harassed,” by lead reporters Jodi Kantor and Megan Twohey? Or will a second one recognize The New Yorker for Ronan Farrow’s expansive stories?

Both the paper’s and the magazine’s articles, appearing within days of each other in October, unearthed movie mega-producer Harvey Weinstein’s history of sexual predation. And together they helped change the discussion of workplace harassment on a national level, and beyond.

In the run-up to next Monday’s Pulitzer announcement, Poynter’s preview of the nation’s oldest and most prestigious journalism awards — with public service and 13 other categories — draws from media competitions that already have publicized their results. Contests that have seemed predictive of Pulitzers in the past include those run by the American Society of News Editors, the Scripps Howard Foundation, and Investigative Reporters and Editors, along with Long Island University’s Polk Awards.

In recent years, as the traditionally newspaper-centric Pulitzers have acknowledged magazines and online-only publications, Poynter has added American Society of Magazine Editors’ “Ellie” winners, and designees of the Online News Association contest, to the mix of Pulitzer possibilities.

Again this year our preview focuses mainly on news-based Pulitzer categories: Public Service; Investigative and Breaking News Reporting; along with Local, National and International Reporting; Feature Writing, Explanatory Reporting, and Breaking News and Feature Photography. The preview largely excludes the more-subjective work entered in the areas of Commentary, Criticism, Editorial Writing and Cartooning.

Conducted in secrecy, the two-step Pulitzer judging began with juries of journalists for each category meeting at New York’s Columbia University to winnow the entries. That process at Columbia, which administers the prizes, is followed by the selection of winners and finalists by the 17 Pulitzer Board members, who meet this Thursday and Friday.

After looking at the finalists on jury lists, the board sometimes moves entries between categories — say from Investigative or National Reporting to Public Service — to achieve the best mix of winning work. So even if prognosticators get a winner right, they might miss the particular prize it wins. (Poynter Institute President Neil Brown has served on the Pulitzer Board since 2015, but was not consulted for this article.)

Each jury of journalists typically forwards to the board three finalists, which they must list alphabetically, so the board isn’t influenced by jurors’ preferences.

First-year Pulitzer Administrator Dana Canedy will announce the 102nd class of winners at 3 p.m. (Eastern) Monday. The results will cover 14 categories of journalism prizes and finalists, with seven categories for arts, letters and music. The event will be live-streamed from the historic World Room of Columbia’s journalism building. This year 1,217 journalism entries were received, up from 1,187 last year.

"The nominated Pulitzer journalists and the depth and impact of their extraordinary work affirms yet again the importance of a robust, independent free press and is journalism we are honored to celebrate,” Canedy told Poynter. 

Public service isn’t a term widely used in journalism competitions outside the Pulitzers, although the Times’ “Harassed” project did win ASNE’s public service Batten Medal, and the National Magazine Awards gave their “public interest” Ellie to the New Yorker for Farrow’s reporting. In other honors related to the harassment stories: Scripps Howard gave its Investigative honor to the Times alone, and IRE named the Times' work as one of its two top medal winners. The Polks, meanwhile, gave their National Reporting award to both The Times and The New Yorker for their sexual harassment stories, naming Kantor and Twohey, along with Farrow.

The 69-year-old Polk Awards have no formal public service category, but they came as close as possible to one this year when they led their entire list of prizes with a “special award” to “the staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post for their extraordinary effort in uncovering the connection between the Trump presidential campaign and the Kremlin that led to Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s ongoing investigation.” No specific stories were cited from either paper, however.

Besides Public Service, two other Pulitzer categories subject to intense speculation each year are Investigative and Breaking News.

A program with a good record for predicting Investigative Pulitzers is the Selden Ring Award bestowed by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School. This year it went to Mike Baker and Justin Mayo of the Seattle Times for “Quantity of Care,” a study of dangerous practices at the esteemed local Swedish Medical Center. The report led to resignations of the CEO and one of its top surgeons. ASNE also gave Baker and Mayo its award for Local Accountability Reporting, while IRE named it the winner in its “Division II,” which includes mid-sized publications.

Receiving Syracuse University’s Robin Toner Prize for Political Reporting was the Washington Post for the work of a team led by Stephanie McCrummen and Beth Reinhard, who investigated the past of U.S. Senate candidate Roy Moore in Alabama and disclosed on-the-record accounts of sexual harassment by Moore. (Scripps named that Post work a finalist in Investigative, as well.) The Post’s work also exposed an attempt to discredit its reporting. In the attempt, the group Project Veritas tried and failed to plant false information about Moore in the newspaper. (The 2017 Toner Prize had been won by the Post’s David Fahrenthold, who then went on to win the National Reporting Pulitzer for his stories “casting doubt on Donald Trump’s assertions of generosity toward charities.”)

Included among IRE finalists in its large-publication division — behind the winning “Harassed” story from the Times — were two Los Angeles Times projects and a Washington Post entry titled “Trump-Russia Investigation,” which IRE jurors described as displaying “dogged pursuit [of] revelations of a presidency that appears to be eroding law and tradition.” The L.A. Times was cited for “The Secret Life of a USC Dean,” which led to the resignation of the dean of the Keck School of Medicine at the school, and “Mexico’s Housing Debacle,” about Mexican government corruption. The Mexico story likely was entered in the Pulitzers’ International Reporting category.

IRE each year also identifies investigative work in smaller markets, which sometimes attracts Pulitzer interest. In IRE’s Division III this year, the organization gave an award to the San Francisco Chronicle for “Fostering Failure,” about abuse of children in a California shelter. And its Division IV winner was “Fake Subpoenas,” by The Lens, a New Orleans-based online site, about how prosecutors used illegal subpoenas to coerce reluctant crime victims.

Late last year the board changed its entry criteria for Breaking News, allowing news organizations to enter even if they arrived to cover the news from outside the area where the story broke.  As usual in 2017, numerous major breaking stories resulted in local coverage that could be in the running for Pulitzers, while many of the bigger stories, of course, also drew reporters from outside the immediate area.

Some leading Breaking News Pulitzer candidates this year, based on what has won other awards so far, could be local coverage of the devastating fires in California’s wine country. Scripps gave the San Francisco Chronicle a Breaking News award for its fire reporting, while ASNE named Santa Rosa’s Press Democrat its winner for work on that story. Scripps had the Press Democrat as one of two finalists, with the other being the Houston Chronicle for its coverage of Hurricane Harvey. The Chronicle’s Harvey reporting also was a finalist in ASNE’s Breaking News category, as was the San Antonio Express-News’ coverage of the Sutherland Springs, Texas, mass shooting in a church.

IRE has a category for investigations “triggered by breaking news,” and that award honored the Chicago Tribune’s examination of dysfunction at the Illinois Department of Children and Family Services, which followed the death of a toddler. Also bordering on breaking news is the work of the Washington Post honored with a Scripps Multimedia Journalism award, for “Sin Luz: Life Without Power,” described by Scripps as an “immersive project that takes viewers into the daily struggles of Puerto Ricans following two powerful hurricanes.”

In International Reporting, or perhaps Explanatory, the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists must be considered a Pulitzer candidate for its “Paradise Papers” reports about how corporate giants and prominent individuals evade taxes. That work won an IRE award for Watchdog Journalism, and a Polk for Financial Reporting. (Last year, the Consortium of Investigative Journalists won a Pulitzer in Explanatory Reporting for its detailing of a global infrastructure of tax havens in an expose called The Panama Papers.)

IRE also gave this year’s Tom Renner Award to BuzzFeed News for “From Russia with Blood,” for BuzzFeed’s investigation of a series of suspicious suicides, with Russian connections, in the U.S. and Great Britain.

Feature Writing is an even more difficult Pulitzer category to predict than most, because judgments on style are so subjective. And prognostication has been further complicated because magazine entries now populate that category, as well as all other Pulitzer fields. (Over the past three years, the New Yorker has been a Feature Writing winner once, and a finalist once.) Two Pulitzer Feature Writing possibilities this year, however, could be Tony Bartelme of Charleston, S.C.’s Post and Courier, and John Woodrow Cox of the Washington Post. Bartelme won ASNE’s Writing Excellence award for his article “Stickin’ with the Pig: A Tale of Loyalty and Loss,” about the closing of Piggly Wiggly Carolina markets. Woodrow Cox received the Scripps Ernie Pyle Award for storytelling for his article “Children and Gun Violence.”

Scanning the Scripps winners that could find themselves considered for Pulitzers in Local Reporting, one finds Virginia’s Bristol Herald Courier, whose story “Addicted at Birth,” looking at the effect of the opioid crisis on babies, won for Community Journalism. And  Scripps had one other winner with a Pulitzer feel: “The Body Trade,” a Reuters investigation into “commerce in human remains,” which won the Scripps Business/Financial Reporting award.

Among the photojournalism honored in competitions so far are the work of Lisa Krantz of the San Antonio Express-News, an ASNE winner for “Rowan’s Reach,” her study of a young boy’s fight against the rare Shwachman-Diamond syndrome.  New York Times photographers won Polk Awards for their work covering the Rohingya people fleeing from Myanmar and resettling in Bangladesh refugee camps.

Of course, the Pulitzers are known for occasional “Pulitzer surprises” among its categories, as the board sometimes picks a smaller reporting project, or work that is off the radar screens of other competitions. Last year’s Public Service selection of a New York Daily News collaboration with ProPublica — for exposing New York City police abuse of eviction rules that punished poor minorities — was an example. Such board surprises can come in any category.

Related: Decades of Public Service Pulitzers prove the power of good reporting.

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