February 29, 2016

Journalism had a good night at the Oscars. The “Best Picture” and “Best Screenplay” wins by “Spotlight” highlighted The Boston Globe’s Pulitzer Prize-winning investigation into the Catholic Church sex abuse scandal. Journalism did well last year, too, when “CitizenFour” won in the best documentary category. But there’s much more movie material out there.

That doesn’t mean those stories will actually get told, said Roy J. Harris, who wrote “Pulitzer’s Gold,” a book about the history of the Pulitzer Prize for public service.

After “All the President’s Men” won in several categories in 1977, everyone thought there’d be more behind-the-scenes journalism stories, he said. There wasn’t a sudden spike. And “Spotlight” met with a lot of obstacles before it premiered, including concerns over making a film about a such a dark subject.

“If they can pull that off with a dramatic story, doors may be open for future ones,” Harris said.

And so, dear Hollywood, here’s a look at nine pieces of award-winning journalism (and one finalist) that would also make great movies.

1. 1921, The Boston Post In 1921, the now-defunct Boston Post won a public service Pulitzer for telling “the story of a 1920s fraud artist whose name is now a household term,” Harris said. Yep, that’s Charles Ponzi.

“It would be a wonderful movie and a period piece for the 20s.”

2. 1927, Canton Daily News The Ohio daily won the Public Service Pulitzer in 1927 “for its brave, patriotic and effective fight for the ending of a vicious state of affairs brought about by collusion between city authorities and the criminal element, a fight which had a tragic result in the assassination of the editor of the paper, Mr. Don R. Mellett,” according to the Pulitzers.

Both of these first two wins were an early celebration of the kind of public service journalism Harris thinks Joseph Pulitzer envisioned. Mellett was in the middle of covering a story about mob activity in Canton. The mob didn’t like it, Harris said, “and so they murdered him in front of his wife in the driveway of their home.”

3. 1970, Dispatch News Service Seymour Hersh’s investigation into Vietnam and the My Lai Massacre earned him a Pulitzer in international reporting. The story, Harris said, is one of a reporter getting hold of something huge and fighting to get it out. A documentary about coverage of Vietnam, 2015’s “Dateline: Saigon,” deals with broader cases of where the Pentagon version of Vietnam differed dramatically with what reporters were observing about the war.

4. 1979, Point Reyes Light The California weekly won a Pulitzer in the public service category for an investigation into Synanon, a rehab facility that turned into a cult. The newspaper, run by Dave and Cathy Mitchell, exposed the story.

5. 2007, “The Race Beat” The 2007 winner in Pulitzer’s history category is a study by Gene Roberts and Hank Klibanoff into the role journalism played uncovering racism in the South during desegregation. According to the Pulitzers, “It is the story of how the nation’s press, after decades of ignoring the problem, came to recognize the importance of the civil rights struggle and turn it into the most significant domestic news event of the twentieth century.”

6. 2008, The Washington Post The Washington Post’s investigation into Walter Reed hospital is a great story, Harris said. The story behind the work of Dana Priest, Anne Hull (a Poynter board of trustees member) and late photographer Michel du Cille highlights the team aspect of journalism that “Spotlight” also heralds, Harris said. According to the Pulitzers, the investigation exposed “mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Hospital, evoking a national outcry and producing reforms by federal officials.”

7. 2003, Los Angeles Times Sonia Nazario won the Pulitzer for features writing that followed a boy from Honduras into the U.S. in search of his mother. Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark recommended Nazario’s story behind the story of “Enrique’s Journey,” for Hollywood’s consideration. Nazario spoke about the toughest parts of reporting the story in a Q&A:

A great difficulty was figuring out a way to report this story in a way that would involve the least danger to myself. Living with the near- constant fear of being beaten, robbed, or raped over a period of months was difficult. I rode on top of a fuel tanker one night when there was rain and lightning. Once, a branch hit me in the face and nearly sent me sprawling off the train top. A child was plucked off the train by the same branch and fell down to the wheels below. Another time, a train derailed right in front of ours. I interviewed a girl who had been gang raped along the tracks in Ixtepec, Oaxaca, and realized that I had been alone at that same spot just one day before. Gangsters were aboard some of my trains. On the Rio Grande, I worried about so- called “river bandits” and I was approached by Mexican police with their guns drawn. That said, I endured nothing even minimally close to what Immigrants go through on this trek. At the end of a long train ride, I could pull out my credit card, go to a hotel and sleep. I ate. I had so many advantages these immigrants didn’t have.

8. 2011, Los Angeles Times: The Times won a public service Pulitzer for this investigation, which the Times’ managing editor for editorial strategy, Mitra Kalita (a Poynter adjunct faculty) recommends. The investigation exposed city-wide corruption in Bell, “where officials tapped the treasury to pay themselves exorbitant salaries, resulting in arrests and reforms,” according to the Pulitzers.

9. 2013, “Behind the Beautiful Forevers: Life, Death and Hope in a Mumbai Undercity”: This 2013 Pulitzer finalist in the non-fiction category is another recommendation from Clark. The book, by Pulitzer-winner Katherine Boo, “plunges the reader into an Indian slum in the shadow of gleaming hotels near Mumbai’s airport, revealing a complex subculture where poverty does not extinguish aspiration,” according to the Pulitzers.

10. 2015, The Post and Courier: Charleston’s newspaper has had a busy year covering huge news stories, Harris said. In 2015, the paper won in the public service category for “Till Death Do Us Part,” an investigation into why the state’s so deadly for women.

“It’s got all this newsroom type drama to it,” Harris said. “But it’s so fresh.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misspelled “Pulitzer” in one instance.

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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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