Parkland student journalists will be special guests at today’s Pulitzer Prize luncheon

May 28, 2019

Handing out the Pulitzer Prizes usually is a low-key affair compared with the surprise-filled April winners announcement. The private-invitation award luncheon at Columbia University’s staid Low Library — to be held today  — is best known for the photo op it offers honorees: professional journalists, along with winners from the world of arts, letters and music.

But today’s ceremony will make room for some much-heralded amateur journalists, as well.

Pulitzer administrator Dana Canedy plans to turn the spotlight on eight students and three school representatives from Parkland, Florida’s Marjory Stoneman Douglas High. The youngsters were among the reporters and editors from The Eagle Eye student publication, acknowledged for their extraordinary coverage of last year’s Feb. 14 mass shooting that killed 17 students, teachers and coaches.

It won’t be the first time Canedy will have combined such recognition with Pulitzer celebrations. She kicked off April 15’s announcement of prizewinners with high praise for the students, noting her “break with tradition” in citing non-winners first. (Eagle Eye Public Service and Breaking News Reporting entries weren’t among the Pulitzer finalists.) “There is hope in their example,” she said then. “These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances, in service to a nation whose very existence depends on a free and dedicated press.”

For Melissa Falkowski, an English teacher and Eagle Eye faculty adviser, the luncheon invitation proves “students have a valid voice, and our project shows that that voice is being recognized. We’re raising the next generation, when kids are going to become citizens.”

The occasion will be appreciated by the entire 3,300-member student body at Douglas, whose Eagle Eye staff has expanded this year from 44 to 75.

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“Most have aspirations about becoming professional journalists,” Falkowski told Poynter in a telephone interview. The Pulitzer luncheon “is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and an incredible place for networking.”

Hundreds of people connected with new Pulitzer recipients will be filling Low Library’s tables today. They include staffers associated with The New York Times’ Explanatory Reporting winner for breakthrough reports about President Donald Trump’s personal finances; reporters responsible for The Wall Street Journal’s National Reporting exposes of 2016 campaign hush-money payments to silence stories of Trump affairs; and others, from the Los Angeles Times and Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and Louisana’s The Advocate.

The students will have lots of company among professional journalists who covered the Parkland horror, too, of course. Staffers from Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel will be on hand to accept the Pulitzer’s Public Service gold medal for “exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage.” Indeed, Tribune Publishing, the newspaper’s Chicago-based owner, is underwriting New York hotel stays for the Marjory Stoneman Douglas student contingent.

“You just don’t want there to be any barrier for those kids to attend an important event like this,” Sun Sentinel publisher Nancy Meyer told Poynter by phone. “What an honor for them to be at the Pulitzer ceremony: the pinnacle of a career for so many great journalists.”

Tribune also helped coordinate an air-travel sponsorship from Spirit Airlines for the students. Said Spirit spokesman Derek Dombrowski, manager of media relations, “As a company based in South Florida, this tragedy struck close to home and the impact was immense.” Many airline team members have ties to Parkland, and Spirit “will continue to support the community and local youth as South Florida and the nation continues to cope and heal.”

In an April New York Times story just after Canedy first hailed the students’ achievements, 18-year-old Eagle Eye co-editor Hannah Kapoor  said the staff  “knew it was a long shot” to actually win when it entered for a prize. But Kapoor, who said she plans to keep studying journalism at Princeton University next year, called the students’ coverage “the most newsworthy work we’ve done and probably ever will do.” Other Parkland students have been involved in writing books about the tragedy, and launched a “March for Our Lives” to call attention to school shooting threats.

For its part, the Pulitzer organization hasn’t publicly discussed its plans for Tuesday’s ceremony. Canedy told Poynter she hopes there will be “a few surprises” for attendees — something that Eagle Eye adviser Falkowski said the students also were advised.

Roy Harris, a former Wall Street Journal reporter and author of “Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism,” writes for Poynter about prize-winning reporting and other topics. He lives in Hingham, Massachusetts.