The Pulitzer Prize is journalism’s most prestigious award. Accordingly — aside from the Letters, Drama and Music categories — the Pulitzer Board usually awards them to professional journalists.
But this year, the Pulitzer Prizes granted a special citation to Darnella Frazier, the teenager who recorded George Floyd’s murder, capturing video that led to protests across the world and the conviction of Derek Chauvin. Since the Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917, only 44 special citations and awards have been given.
Frazier, who was 17 at the time, was at Cup Foods with her 9-year-old cousin on May 25, 2020, when she saw police officers pinning Floyd to the ground. She sent her cousin inside, took out her cellphone and recorded the 10-minute video that has now been seen by millions.
In the video, Chauvin presses his knee on Floyd’s neck for more than nine minutes, suffocating him. The Minneapolis Police Department posted a statement to its website the next day with the headline “Man Dies After Medical Incident During Police Interaction.”
Many credit Frazier for capturing what had actually happened. Floyd’s aunt Angela Harrellson later told CNN that Frazier’s footage ensured that people would know who was responsible for Floyd’s death.
“The sad thing is if it hadn’t been for that 17-year-old girl Darnella, it would have been another Black man that was killed by the police … and they would have said, ‘Oh, it was drugs, oh it was this.’ And we would never have had the story we would have and wouldn’t be here today talking,” Harrellson said.
Frazier also later testified during Chauvin’s trial, telling the courtroom that though bystanders urged the officers to stop hurting Floyd, Chauvin continued to kneel on Floyd’s neck even as a paramedic checked his pulse.
“It seemed like he knew it was over for him. He was terrified. He was suffering,” she said.
Chauvin was later found guilty of second-degree unintentional murder, third-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Three other officers involved in the arrest will be tried in August.
Journalists, too, have praised her. Nieman Foundation for Journalism curator Ann Marie Lipinski called Frazier’s video “one of the most important civil rights documents in a generation.” Poynter senior scholar Roy Peter Clark wrote in an op-ed that Frazier’s video lives in the tradition of journalism that holds “corrupt and racist power accountable.”
“Her excruciating video had a social and ethical purpose, one that aligns with journalistic values: To give voice to the voiceless, to speak truth to power, to reveal secrets that the corrupt seek to hide, to stand strong in a moment of personal peril, and to document a fleeting reality that is fraught with meaning,” Clark wrote.
There are 16 journalism Pulitzer categories. Generally, at least one winner is awarded in each category every year. (This year, no award was given for Editorial Cartoons).
But special citations and awards are different. The Pulitzer Prize Board only awards them when it deems it appropriate.
Last year, the board awarded investigative journalist Ida B. Wells a posthumous citation for her “outstanding and courageous” reporting on the lynchings of Black men in the South after the Civil War. In 2019, staff at the Capital Gazette received a citation for their commitment to covering the news even after their newsroom was attacked in the largest killing of journalists in U.S. history.
The last person to receive a special citation or award before 2019 was songwriter Hank Williams in 2010.