May 4, 2020

The Pulitzer Prize Board announced that this year, for the first time ever, a Pulitzer would be awarded for “Audio Reporting.” It was the board’s way of changing with the times, to recognize the evolution in journalism and honor the new kind of storytelling we are now seeing in the age of podcasting.

Yet it was a legendary program — one that has been around for 25 years — that will forever be remembered as the first winner of an “Audio Reporting” Pulitzer: “This American Life.”

A staple on public radio since its debut in 1995, the show is as popular now as ever. Creator Ira Glass still serves as host and the weekly program, which also has been turned into a podcast, continues to reach millions of listeners.

So, maybe it was only appropriate that this iconic show known for remarkable storytelling would win the first-ever Pulitzer for “Audio Reporting.”

But this was no lifetime achievement award. The episode for which it won was the kind of deep journalism that makes a difference.

In partnership with The Los Angeles Times and Vice News, “This American Life” won for an episode called “The Out Crowd” — which illuminated the personal impact of the Trump Administration’s “Remain in Mexico” policy. In the episode, listeners hear from asylum seekers in a refugee camp in Mexico just across the border, as well as the officers who sent them there. In fact, many of the U.S. asylum officers felt awful about sending the migrants back to Mexico, as Los Angeles Times reporter Molly O’Toole learned.

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Vice News’ Emily Green talked to a man who said he was afraid of being kidnapped if he was sent back to Mexico. Five hours after he was sent back, he was kidnapped by a drug cartel.

It’s heartbreaking and sobering storytelling — and the kind of impactful story that deserved to be recognized with the first “Audio Reporting” Pulitzer.

There were two finalists, as well.

“Ear Hustle” is a podcast produced by the inmates of San Quentin State Prison that tells the stories of what life is like for those inside the country’s most notorious prisons.

“White Lies,” produced by NPR, looked at the 1965 murder of Rev. James Reeb in Selma, Alabama. As the podcast describes, “Fifty years later, two journalists from Alabama return to the city where it happened, expose the lies that kept the murder from being solved and uncover a story about guilt and memory that says as much about American today as it does about the past.”

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Looking at the winner and finalists in this category, it’s clear the Pulitzer Prize Board placed an emphasis on original, in-depth reporting. The rules say, “For a distinguished example of audio journalism that serves the public interest, characterized by revelatory reporting and illuminating storytelling.’’

All three finalists met that criteria, as did other worthy considerations, but in the end, the winner was one of America’s most recognizable and beloved media entities.

Tom Jones is Poynter’s senior media writer. For the latest media news and analysis, delivered free to your inbox each and every weekday morning, sign up for his Poynter Report newsletter.

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