Journalists are sure to remember 2021 as a remarkable news year. Starting with penetrating Jan. 6 coverage of the Capitol rioting and its devastating fallout, the media also provided insightful coverage of climate change and other environmental challenges while following closely the painfully slow pandemic recovery. And along the way, it delivered numerous local and national scoops — including exclusives on the database inner workings of the Internal Revenue Service and of Facebook, to name only two.
On May 9, new Pulitzer Prize administrator Marjorie Miller will livestream the announcement from Columbia University of the 106th prizes in 15 journalism categories, coming as close as the press can to immortalizing its very best work. Also revealed will be seven prizes for U.S. arts and letters, rounding out the 22 total Pulitzer categories.
Poynter, as it has done for a dozen years, offers an advance look at some of the reporting likely to receive the Pulitzers’ blessing as winners or finalists in certain of its most competitive, news-based areas.
Speculating on what might win a journalism Pulitzer is always risky. The oldest of the nation’s annual awards has its own unique way of judging entries: a secretive two-tiered system that chooses finalists, and then winners. First, all news organization entries are narrowed to three candidates in each of its journalism categories — with small, hand-picked juries making the first cut. Then, the week before “Pulitzer Monday,” the 18-member Pulitzer board meets to designate the final picks.
Poynter’s preview relies largely on analyses of what the year’s earlier journalism competitions have recognized. Our preview considers only six of the 15 Pulitzer journalism categories: public service, breaking news, investigative, international, national and local reporting — the areas that most closely reflect competitive news-based coverage. The other journalism categories not considered here: feature writing, commentary and criticism; editorial writing and cartooning; breaking news and feature photography, and audio reporting. (Poynter president Neil Brown, a Pulitzer Board member, was not consulted for this article.)
In spot coverage of the deadly Jan. 6 rioting, winners already revealed by several major contests included The Washington Post and ProPublica. The Post won the News Leaders Association Al Neuharth Breaking News Reporting Award for the day’s reporting on the riot, with other honors going to the Post for its later, three-part analysis, “The Attack.” That Post series won one of the Toner Prizes given by Syracuse University’s Newhouse School of Public Communication — the award for national political reporting — and also claimed for that project one of Long Island University’s George Polk Awards.
A second Robin Toner award went to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution for its two-part series headlined “Inside the Campaign to Undermine Georgia’s Election.” That project focused brilliantly on one critical state’s issues in trying to debunk lies and myths about the 2020 voting.
Meanwhile, ProPublica’s story, “What Parler Saw During the Attack on the Capitol,” was cited by Investigative Reporters and Editors, where it was one of two entries winning in the IRE category dubbed as work “triggered by breaking news.” The ProPublica stories — focusing on rioters whose activities were exposed on the Parler social media site — won in the same category as a project titled “Unprepared: Texas Winter Storm 2021,” a collaboration between ProPublica and the Texas Tribune.
One more story likely to be in the Pulitzer running, perhaps for investigative reporting, is the Tampa Bay Times’ work on “Poisoned,” a powerful story by reporters Corey Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray that revealed unsafe conditions at a lead-smelting factory. Tampa Bay’s story was acknowledged with a Polk local reporting prize, along with an IRE award. The story also won a Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism, which is administered by the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University and honors investigative reporting of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. (Poynter owns the Tampa Bay Times.)
Another 2022 Pulitzer candidate is likely ProPublica’s “The Secret IRS Files” from June, work by staffers Jesse Eisinger, Jeff Ernsthausen and Paul Kiel that won the Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School, as well as an IRE prize. The ProPublica story, according to the Selden Ring judges, was based on “the largest confidential leak of tax records in U.S. history” — offering a window into how certain wealthy Americans avoid paying huge amounts. (This year, an intensive follow-up story from ProPublica offered even more detail on the tax strategies of the wealthy.)
The Wall Street Journal, a winner in the Polk business reporting category, could be in Pulitzer contention as well for reporter Jeff Horwitz’s study, “Facebook Files,” called by the Polks “an explosive series documenting how Facebook (now Meta) ignored internal findings that company practices promoted anger, divisiveness and extremism, protected drug cartels, human traffickers and dictators; and endangered teenage girls susceptible to body-image concerns, anxiety and depression.”
For climate-change reporting, the News Leaders Awards honored the Los Angeles Times article “Extreme Heat,” which the contest described as “the best combination of accountability and explanatory work on a surprisingly overlooked” climate-change element: deaths stemming from climate changes that aren’t reported as such.
The Polk Awards also gave a political reporting prize to Linda So, Jason Szep and the staff of Reuters for their stories “of widespread intimidation efforts by acolytes of Donald Trump to undermine the electoral process by threatening and vilifying poll workers and government officials in 16 states …”
For overseas reporting, the Polks honored several New York Times reporters. One award cited Maria Abi-Habib and Frances Robles, among others, for coverage of the murder of Haitian President Jovenel Moïse. Also, a Polk military reporting prize went to Times freelancer Azmat Khan, along with staffers Dave Philipps and Eric Schmitt, for “uncovering intelligence failures and civilian deaths associated with Middle East air strikes,” some of which were connected to the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan.
Additionally, the Polks cited “The Pegasus Project” — by The Washington Post, the Guardian-U.S., and the Forbidden Stories Network — for technology reporting. It honored work revealing that anti-terrorism and anti-crime spyware sold by the Israeli company NSO Group Technology was used to tap into the phones of journalists, politicians, business executives and others around the world.
A Polk winner for magazine reporting was Sarah Stillman of The New Yorker magazine, for her work “shedding light on an often-overlooked group of victims of the fires, floods, hurricanes and tornadoes striking Americans with increasing frequency,” in an article headlined “The Migrant Workers Who Follow Climate Disasters.”
For some of these winners, the May 9 Pulitzer Monday announcements could well be yet another opportunity to celebrate — and perhaps to enjoy the career honor of a lifetime.