The winners of four 2013 Pulitzer Prizes came together Tuesday night at Poynter to talk about their work and their wins. They came from Florida, New York and a shop with people scattered around the country, from three large papers and one nonprofit news site. They won for work on speeding cops, diluted bitumen, fluoride in the water and cross-border corruption at Wal-Mart.
Other than that Pulitzer, the work of the seven people present Tuesday night didn’t have much in common.
But, for most, the processes they used to produce their work did.
1. IT STARTS WITH A NEWS EVENT
For the South Florida Sun Sentinel, that event was a video showing a state trooper pulling over a Miami police officer for going about 120 miles per hour.
“It really hit a nerve with the community,” said Sally Kestin, an investigative reporter who won the 2013 Pulitzer for Public Service along with John Maines, a database editor for the Sun Sentinel.
The two knew they’d seen cops speeding themselves, but “it’s one thing to know what’s happening, but how are we gonna prove it?” Kestin said.
For Elizabeth McGowan and Lisa Song, who won the Pulitzer for National Reporting along with David Hasemyer for InsideClimate News, the news event actually happened 15 months earlier with a spill from an oil pipleline in Michigan. The impact of that spill, and the dangers of diluted bitumen, still weren’t understood.
And for Tim Nickens and Daniel Ruth, who won for Editorial Writing for the Tampa Bay Times, the news was happening as they watched county commissioners vote to remove fluoride from the water. The decision was touted as a cost-saving measure, but the two set out to report on the science behind it.
“What is happening in your community?” Kestin told the crowd. “Look around you.”
Things that make the news, she said, are often signals of a much larger problem.
2. NEXT, DIG INTO DATA AND RESEARCH
Kestin and Maines started by buying a radar gun and heading out a 5 a.m. one morning to try and clock speeds themselves.
“And we got rained on,” Maines said, “and that was about it.”
Eventually the two ended up clocking the distance from toll to toll themselves using a portable GPS. And they had raw data showing police cars driving 120 miles per hour and more.
“It took us a little time to figure out the we were really on to something big,” Kestin said.
And that came with the data they saw, showing police officers regularly speeding outside their own jurisdictions, not on duty. Their investigation found more than 700 cops from numerous agencies sped between 90 and 130 miles per hour.
At InsideClimate News, McGowan and Song worked to retell the story of the pipeline spill beginning with the first day, and Song, who has a degree in environmental science from Massachusetts Institute of Technology, worked with McGowan on understanding the science of diluted bitumen, or dilbit.
“Hallelujah to multi-generational journalism,” McGowan said.
At the Tampa Bay Times, Ruth and Nickens first reported out the science behind adding fluoride to water. They wanted to understand the pros and cons, and found there were no peer-reviewed studies finding any dangers with fluoride.
3. THEN, FIND THE PEOPLE
Kestin and Maines had seven years of data to search through and found that since 2010, police speeding caused 320 crashes and 19 deaths. They told those stories to show the human cost of police speeding.
As the 21-year-old driver pulled toward the intersection, the approaching headlights glinted only faintly in the distance.
“They were very far away,” Heather Meyer said later. “I didn’t even know what kind of car it was.”
In that oncoming car: Broward Sheriff ’s Deputy Frank McCurrie, racing to aid a fellow officer with a traffic stop. McCurrie hit the gas, accelerating from 24 to 87 mph in 24 seconds, and reached Meyer just as she turned left off Dixie Highway in Oakland Park.
The deputy’s Ford Crown Victoria T-boned the Honda Civic with such force it sliced the car in two behind the front seats. The front spun clockwise for more than 30 feet while the mangled rear hurtled into a swale 70 feet away.
“I couldn’t see very well because I was bleeding from my eye,” Meyer told investigators.
“But I remember I was the only person in the car afterwards.”
Meyer’s 14-year-old stepsister, Cara Catlin, had been in the back seat. They found her body 37 feet from the point of impact.
Song and McGowan found John LaForge, a Michigan man who discovered black goo in his grass.
LaForge said he was stooped over the creek, looking for the source of the gunk, when two men in a white truck marked Enbridge pulled up just before 10 a.m. One rushed to LaForge’s open front door and disappeared inside with an air-monitoring instrument.
The man emerged less than a minute later, and uttered the words that still haunt LaForge today: It’s not safe to be here. You’re going to have to leave your house. Now.
And Nickens and Ruth found Florida families who had to buy fluoride to add to the water after it was removed.
Even for dental hygienist Sue Sasko, it’s a hassle making sure her son Alex, 4, and daughter Lauren, 8, take their proper daily doses of chewable fluoride tablets.
“It’s a nuisance,” said she said, and she criticizes commissioners who voted to stop adding fluoride to the drinking water for caving to uninformed political pressure.
4. AND LOOK FOR TRAIL MAGIC ON THE WAY
Unlike the other three winners, David Barstow’s Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting didn’t begin with a news event.
“I started with a handful of documents,” he told the crowd at Poynter.
And he started the reporting process that, for him, is still the part he lives for — knocking on doors, asking questions, hoping people will let him in.
“There is something magical about the benefits of shoe leather,” he said.
Barstow and Alejandra Xanic von Bertrab of The New York Times won for reporting on Wal-Mart’s use of bribery to lead the market in Mexico.
But how do you penetrate a major corporation you suspect of breaking the law in another country? Something happens, as you’re reporting, when the right stuff comes along (after lots of door knocking and question asking.)
Barstow called it trail magic.
For him, it happened one day in a desolate hotel. Barstow was reporting when he got a text message to be at the ice machine on the fourth floor at 8 p.m.
“So, like a fool, I go to the ice machine,” he said.
And someone else did, too. That person handed him a bag with a large hard drive. Barstow flew back to New York with that bag, and “inside that black box was thousands of internal Wal-Mart documents and emails,” he said.
One of them showed that people inside Wal-Mart suspected they’d violated U.S. and Mexican laws.
At the Sun Sentinal, Kestin and Maines had a similar break. They’d been filing records requests, trying to get records from Florida’s toll system SunPass with no luck, when someone internally contacted them and said he’d help. A week before Kestin and Maines had a meeting with the new head of SunPass, someone authorized an employee to go in on a weekend and release the data they’d asked for. The man called himself The Owl.
“Didn’t he say ‘I hope you win a Pulitzer, time for The Owl to fly away’?” Maines asked Kestin about one of the last times they heard from The Owl.
“Yes,” Kestin said. “He did.”
Trail magic isn’t really his own new term, Barstow said after the event. It’s a saying that comes from the Appalachian Trail. Hikers have low moments there, he said, maybe they’re low on food, or wet, or just worn out. Then, someone comes along with just what they need. It’s trail magic, he said.
“And I kind of think that same philosophy applies to journalism.”