In March 2020, most Americans were just starting to realize that the coronavirus sweeping across the world had invaded America. Sports leagues started to shut down. March Madness was canceled. Actor Tom Hanks revealed he had been diagnosed with COVID-19.
And yet, even then, we might not have fully grasped the horror that was waiting for us all — from the hundreds of thousands of deaths to locking down the country to wearing masks and social distancing when we dared to leave our homes, which had suddenly become our schools and offices.
While that was going on, Ed Yong was writing a piece for The Atlantic called “How the Pandemic Will End.” It became one of the most-read pieces in the history of The Atlantic.
As the headline would suggest, Yong, more than any other journalist, was ahead of the story. In fact, even before the pandemic, way back in 2018, Yong wrote a piece with this headline: “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?”
By the end of 2020, Poynter called him “the most important and impactful” journalist of the year.
On Friday, the Pulitzer Prize Board recognized his work with a Pulitzer for Explanatory Reporting. The board awarded him “for a series of lucid, definitive pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic that anticipated the course of the disease, synthesized the complex challenges the country faced, illuminated the U.S. government’s failures, and provided clear and accessible context for the scientific and human challenges it posed.”
It’s the first Pulitzer ever awarded to The Atlantic.
Yong told Poynter in an email, “It’s surreal. I wish that the stories I wrote had never been necessary, but I’m proud to have been able to help my readers make sense of a crisis that often defied sense. And I’m incredibly grateful to the team of phenomenal editors, fact-checkers, copy-editors, and artists, without whom my work would have been impossible.”
In a tweet, Yong wrote he will be splitting the $15,000 prize money “between everyone who worked on my pieces last year—every editor, copy editor, fact checker, artist, and more. Even when individuals win Pulitzers, their work depends on a community. I want to honor mine.”
Again, his work started in earnest back in March. During a conversation for Poynter’s staff and National Advisory Board with Stephen Buckley, a member of Poynter’s board of trustees, Yong said, “ … by the time it came to March, it became clear this problem was not ready to go away, it was going to define us as a generation, it was going to uproot all of our lives, and that it demanded the full attention of everyone at The Atlantic. So I dropped my book leave, started covering the pandemic, and continued doing so for the rest of the year.”
What a year it was. Yong’s work was extraordinary and exemplary, a balance of intelligence about what had happened and foresight into what was likely to happen next. He became a go-to read every time he wrote about the virus, such as his remarkable piece in September titled, “How the Pandemic Defeated America.”
That story included what many in the journalism business, including Poynter’s Roy Peter Clark, consider the sentence of the year — a whopping 212 words — while talking about then-President Trump and the virus:
No one should be shocked that a liar who has made almost 20,000 false or misleading claims during his presidency would lie about whether the U.S. had the pandemic under control; that a racist who gave birth to birtherism would do little to stop a virus that was disproportionately killing Black people; that a xenophobe who presided over the creation of new immigrant-detention centers would order meatpacking plants with a substantial immigrant workforce to remain open; that a cruel man devoid of empathy would fail to calm fearful citizens; that a narcissist who cannot stand to be upstaged would refuse to tap the deep well of experts at his disposal; that a scion of nepotism would hand control of a shadow coronavirus task force to his unqualified son-in-law; that an armchair polymath would claim to have a “natural ability” at medicine and display it by wondering out loud about the curative potential of injecting disinfectant; that an egotist incapable of admitting failure would try to distract from his greatest one by blaming China, defunding the WHO, and promoting miracle drugs; or that a president who has been shielded by his party from any shred of accountability would say, when asked about the lack of testing, “I don’t take any responsibility at all.”
In addition, Yong’s stories seemed to anticipate the next chapter in the coronavirus story. They were written in ways that were easily digestible to audiences.
“Through his writing,” Atlantic editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg said in a statement, “Ed has illuminated pathways of understanding for tens of millions of our readers; he has been a sentinel, a source of brilliant analysis, a beacon of moral clarity; and he has provided comfort when it was needed the most.”
When Yong looks back at 2020, what work is he most proud of? Which made the most impact?
“I think that writing about long-haulers at a time when almost no one else was there made a real difference to the lives of many people who were suffering in silence,” Yong said. “I will always be proud of that.”