A lead reporter on the nascent project, Pardue and teammate Jennifer Berry Hawes were interviewing the director of a local women’s shelter about factors that led to such a level of carnage: poverty, an extremely rural population, and a strong gun culture. When the director surprised them by mentioning “this religion thing,” though, they were puzzled. Fundamentalist Christian men, the director explained, often consider themselves totally dominant in any relationship.
Holding up her ring finger, the director added: “Till death do us part.”
That was in September 2013. There would be many more surprises for Pardue and “faith and values” beat reporter Hawes—who teamed with Glenn Smith and Natalie Caula Hauff, and managers led by executive editor Mitch Pugh.
For one thing, high-level support for the project would be steadfast, unusual for a 85,000-circulation, family-owned paper. Pardue credits Pugh, who had recently moved to Charleston from Lee Enterprises’ Sioux City (Iowa) Journal, and reinstituted an enterprise reporting function that previously had been cut back. “He really wanted projects and public service journalism,” the reporter tells Poynter by telephone, “and I guess we gave it to him.”
Pugh—who deflects credit to the reporters, and a multimedia approach strikingly designed by interactive editor J. Emory Parker and his team—says support came from the top: the longtime South Carolina family ownership itself, now led by Evening Post Industries chairman Pierre Manigault.
During the reporting the team also found that women brutalized by men often would talk freely about it. “It was like we popped the cork on their faucet,” says Pardue. Often with support from women’s shelters, “they poured forth, and it was gut-wrenching in many ways.” And not only did women come forward, but so did some surprisingly candid men.
The staff’s final surprise, yesterday: that such a small news organization could have its project honored with the Pulitzer gold medal for meritorious public service, the nation’s most prestigious journalism award. Named as finalists, behind the Post and Courier, were the Wall Street Journal and Boston Globe. (Note: the Pulitzers do have a record of identifying smaller organizations—in part because they have size and other constraints. That’s been especially true with that gold medal, awarded in 2010, for example, to the tiny Bristol [Va.] Herald, and in 2009 to a Las Vegas Sun that was essentially a supplement inside another paper.)
“I’m humbly ecstatic,” Pardue says. He then starts describing the ordinary origins of what became “Till death do us part”—a project that, according to Pugh’s Pulitzer nomination letter, “shamed lawmakers into action by exposing South Carolina as a state where more than 300 women had died in a decade’s time while its leaders did little to stem the violence.” Using an anecdote from the story, the letter continued, “It’s a state where domestic abusers face a maximum of 30 days behind bars for brutalizing a wife or girlfriend but up to five years in prison for cruelty to a dog.”
The story began when Pardue and Smith, who would become co-lead reporters for the project, decided to develop Pardue’s earlier work, “Forgotten South Carolina.” That reporting had investigated numerous areas where the state severely lagged behind others—including in the measures it took to combat domestic violence.
After one national organization, the Violence Policy Center, ranked the state No. 1 in the rate of women killed by men, “once again we were at the top of a list you didn’t want to be at the top of,” says Pardue, who along with Smith was able to sell editors on the idea of exploring why, and detailing horrific cases.
Assistance was sought from the then-director of the California-based Center for Investigative Reporting, Mark Katches (although CIR wasn’t mentioned in the Pulitzer citation.) He helped edit the series, while CIR provided database training. During the reporting, Pardue adds, the effort got a boost from the viral video of Baltimore Ravens football player Ray Rice punching his wife in an elevator—adding legitimacy to the spousal-abuse topic.
Even in extremely conservative, heavily pro-gun South Carolina, legislators paid attention to women’s claims in the Post and Courier, proposing bills that suggested there was a willingness to attack the problem by, for instance, reducing the easy access to weapons that state law allows men with domestic-abuse records. Indeed, Pardue considers the awareness the stories created, rather than any particular legislation, as the paper’s key result. “This crime basically existed in the shadows,” he says.
The limits of legislative support certainly are being tested, though. As Pardue commented in the Post and Courier’s own story about its prize, all the paper’s work “may ultimately be meaningless if the state’s General Assembly doesn’t pass the domestic violence law reforms bills it has on its table.”
“Each finalist had its merits,” says Josh Meyer, one of seven Pulitzer Public Service jurors, noting that the jury forwarded three finalists to the Pulitzer board without stating a preference, in keeping with longstanding policy. Meyer, a former Los Angeles Times reporter now with Northwestern University’s Medill National Security Journalism Initiative, adds, though: “To me the Post and Courier work truly epitomized what the Public Service award is all about. It was dogged, sustained and effective reporting, masterfully told, on a topic of huge public importance.” He adds, “The entry stood out because of what a paper of relatively modest means can accomplish to identify the scope of a deeply entrenched problem” in a state where “a subservient role for women is widely accepted [and] gun ownership is a given, and state programs for battered women are sorely lacking. It had a powerful impact, in the sense that it took what had become an accepted part of life and turned it into a problem that could no longer be denied.”
Another juror, who asked not to be identified, says the Post and Courier’s work “captured the haunting stories of victims, but also looked at why the problem was so prevalent.” Asked to comment on the Pulitzers’ quest for Public Service winners that have an impact on the community, this juror adds that the Post and Courier, while small, “is a dominant statewide voice and, as the board said, it put the issue on the state’s agenda.”
It’s not the first Pulitzer for the Charleston paper, which won the Editorial Writing award a mere 90 years ago. In 1925—when it was known as the News and Courier—Pulitzers had nowhere near their current prestige value, and there were only three other journalism categories: Public Service, Reporting and Cartooning.
Perhaps it’s fitting that a nine-decade absence from the winner’s stand is now over, with the Pulitzers set to recognize their centennial next year.
Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and editor in The Economist organization, has written about the Pulitzer Prizes for Poynter for 13 years. He is the author of Pulitzer’s Gold, to be published by Columbia University Press in a revised and updated edition in advance of the 2016 centennial of the Pulitzers.