By:
June 14, 2021

As we look back at 2020, three major news stories consumed the media cycle.

The coronavirus. The racial reckoning triggered by how some police treat people of color. And Donald Trump and the 2020 presidential election.

So when the Pulitzer Prizes were awarded last Friday, observers expected those three stories to dominate the awards. And they did.

Except for the Trump part.

Interestingly, and somewhat surprisingly, Trump-related stories were largely absent from the list of Pulitzer winners and finalists.

But COVID-19 and race and policing did dominate the awards.

That was the first thing that stood out to me when journalism’s biggest and most prestigious awards were handed out on Friday. In fact, the photo above is from Associated Press’ Breaking News Photography Pulitzer for its coverage of protests following the murder of George Floyd.

Here are other thoughts, notes and insights into this year’s Pulitzer Prizes.

COVID-19 and race and police

As I mentioned, 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’ COVID-19 coverage

Let’s start here: The New York Times’ COVID-19 coverage was remarkable. Simply remarkable. All of it. And the news outlet, whose lofty ambitions are equally met by the talent and capability to meet those high expectations, absolutely deserved its Public Service Pulitzer — generally considered the most prestigious of the Pulitzer awards.

The coverage was not the result of one journalist. Of course it wasn’t. Journalists spread across several departments combined to produce dazzling and informative coverage about a story that can be considered unprecedented.

Having said that, I found it interesting that a big part of the Times’ Pulitzer-winning COVID-19 coverage was produced by Donald McNeil Jr., who resigned under pressure after a 2019 incident when he was serving as a guide on a Times-sponsored trip to Peru for high school and middle school students and used the N-word. (McNeil said he used the racial slur while talking with a student about the suspension of a classmate who had used the N-word.) He later wrote, “I should not have done that. Originally, I thought the context in which I used this ugly word could be defended. I now realize that it cannot. It is deeply offensive and hurtful.”

McNeil’s reporting on COVID-19 was among the best, and he was the feature interview in “The Daily” podcast, which was a part of the Times’ submitted work.

In a statement to Fox News’ Brian Flood and Joseph A. Wulfsohn, McNeil said, “Fearing the controversy would cost them a Pulitzer, the Times wrote to the Pulitzer jury and board to reassure them that I was not a racist.”

He added, “When the company adds this award to the 15th floor ‘Pulitzer Wall,’ I hope they will include me in the credits. I aspired to make it there my whole career.”

For what it’s worth, Times executive editor Dean Baquet mentioned McNeil in his comments to the staff about the Pulitzers the Times won on Friday.

A special citation

America’s latest racial reckoning began on 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.

Many applauded the Pulitzers’ decision. MSNBC’s Joy Reid tweeted, “I could not possibly love this more.” Los Angeles Times editorial page editor Sewell Chan tweeted that it was “amazing.” Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan tweeted, “Really happy to see this. So well deserved, since she courageously changed the world.”

However, in an opinion piece for CNN, author Mikki Kendall wrote, “A better recognition for Frazier’s work would have been inclusion in an existing category, or the creation of or call for a new category honoring citizen journalism. Quite simply, her citation now is not enough. It does not change the history of the Pulitzers, nor does its symbolism alter the traumatic reality she recorded and preserved.”

Kendall added, “It boggles my mind that the Board can recognize that what she did is iconic — and that people can praise them for it — without considering her worthy of an award that does not feel like it comes with an asterisk.”

Poynter’s Angela Fu wrote about Frazier’s special citation.

A local story that went national and then global

The murder of George Floyd happened only miles away from the offices of The (Minneapolis) Star Tribune, which won a Breaking News Pulitzer for its coverage of the story.

In an interview with Poynter’s Rick Edmonds, Star Tribune editor and senior vice president Rene Sanchez said, “We recognized very early that this was going to be a huge story and a very painful one for our community. … You could call our approach head-and-heart. … (The events) raised some very hard questions for our community.”

Freelancing to the top

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.

After his win, Poynter’s Amaris Castillo spoke to Jackson, who told her, “I am stunned. It really feels surreal.” Castillo’s story details how Jackson put together his Pulitzer-winning story.

Meanwhile, also winning in the Feature Writing category was Nadja Drost. Her 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.

Drost’s story appeared in California Sunday Magazine, and Poynter’s Kristen Hare wrote about that for her piece with this remarkable headline: “California Sunday Magazine closed last year. It just won a Pulitzer.”

Yong’s extraordinary work

Last December, in my media year in review, I called The Atlantic’s Ed Yong “the most important and impactful journalist” of the year for his superior work covering COVID-19.

Just how on top of this pandemic was Yong? Check out this headline: “The Next Plague is Coming. Is America Ready?” That’s a story Yong wrote … in 2018!

In March 2020, when most Americans were just starting to realize that the coronavirus sweeping across the world had invaded America, Yong was, again, ahead of the news with this story, “How the Pandemic Will End.” It became one of The Atlantic’s most-read stories ever.

Check out my story on Yong winning a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting. He told me, “It’s surreal. I wish that the stories I wrote had never been necessary, but I’m proud to have been able to help my readers make sense of a crisis that often defied sense.”

One more thought on Yong

As a personal aside, I communicated a few times with Yong in 2020 and can tell you that aside from being one of the most thoughtful and intelligent journalists I’ve ever come across, he also is among the most down-to-earth and self-aware people I’ve come in contact with. You should also check out Yong’s 2020 conversation for Poynter’s staff and National Advisory Board with Stephen Buckley, a member of Poynter’s board of trustees.

And how cool is this? Yong tweeted that he is sharing his Pulitzer prize money ($15,000) with “every editor, copy editor, fact checker, artist, and more.”

Making history

The Local Reporting category has been around only since 2007, but the Poynter-owned Tampa Bay Times just won its third Local News Pulitzer — more than any other outlet. Kathleen McGrory and Neil Bedi won for their powerful investigation called “Targeted,” which revealed how a Tampa Bay-area sheriff’s department ran a secret operation digging into school grades and child welfare records in an attempt to profile schoolchildren. The department trampled on privacy and harassed families in a misguided attempt to predict crimes that had not even happened.

Tampa Bay Times executive editor Mark Katches wrote a piece talking about the investigation, saying, “Our newsroom holds the powerful accountable and gives voice to the voiceless. That may sound like a journalistic cliche. It’s gospel to us.”

Other Pulitzer background stories

Look for Trump next year

As I mentioned above, Trump-related stories were noticeably absent from this year’s awards. The only time he really came up among the Pulitzer winners and finalists was for his COVID-19 response — or lack thereof. But let’s not forget that the insurrection and Trump’s final days in office came after Jan. 1. So stories about that will be eligible for next year’s Pulitzers.

Other media news and notes from the weekend …

Then-White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany speaks during a press briefing at the White House last January. (AP Photo/Patrick Semansky)

  • In the category of “Did She Really Just Say That?” former White House press secretary and current Fox News personality Kayleigh McEnany said she never lied as press secretary, adding, “As a woman of faith, as a mother of baby Blake, as a person who meticulously prepared at some of the world’s hardest institutions, I never lied. I sourced my information.” She made her comments at Turning Point USA’s Young Women’s Leadership Summit on Sunday. Raw Story’s David Edwards has more. And Raw Story’s Sarah K. Burris with “Here’s a list of Kayleigh McEnany’s lies to refresh her memory.”
  • Politico’s Jack Shafer with “Why Has Local News Collapsed? Blame Readers.”
  • Cool video where MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow encourages viewers to buy a subscription to their local newspaper.
  • On Sunday’s “Reliable Sources” on CNN, host Brian Stelter talked with The Associated Press’ Ian Phillips and Ruth Eglash, chief of communications for the Israeli ambassador’s office, about a recent meeting between the AP and Israeli officials regarding last month’s airstrike on the building that housed the AP’s offices in Gaza.
  • CNN’s Julia Horowitz writes about Great Britain’s latest news channel called GB News. Executives at GB News tell Horowitz they are not the British Fox News, but Horowitz writes GB News “is likely to have more in common with opinion-driven American cable shows than the news programs currently on air in Britain, shaking up the country’s TV landscape with commentary that wades directly into the culture wars.”
  • Attorney General Merrick Garland is scheduled to meet today with executives from The New York Times, The Washington Post and CNN to go over how the Department of Justice seized email and phone records of journalists at those news outlets — first under Donald Trump, but continuing under Joe Biden. Surely the news outlets will be looking for assurances that such tactics will cease.
  • The latest from The New York Times’ Ben Smith: “Why The New Yorker’s Stars Didn’t Join Its Union.”

Sunday’s breaking news

Israel’s new prime minister Naftali Bennett. (AP Photo/Ariel Schalit)

Benjamin Netanyahu is out after 12 years as Israel’s prime minister. Naftali Bennett is the new prime minister. Here’s some notable coverage:

Hot type

Have feedback or a tip? Email Poynter senior media writer Tom Jones at tjones@poynter.org.

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Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer for Poynter.org. He was previously part of the Tampa Bay Times family during three stints over some 30…
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