Shop Notes

Reporters reflect on journalism’s highest honor

Posted: Feb. 1, 2016 | Tags: Pulitzer Prize


Photo by Maria Bryk, Newseum

More than 200 Pulitzer Prize winners gather at the Newseum for the first in a series of yearlong events across the country.

Throughout his career, Doug Pardue has kept the Pulitzer Prize as a goal. Not because he wanted to win the award but because he realized that if he kept striving to do the kind of journalism worthy of the prize, then he was doing the best he could.

So to finally get it felt like an honor, he said: “It’s the capstone to my career.”

Pardue, projects reporter for The Post and Courier, in Charleston, South Carolina, was part of the four-member team that investigated domestic violence killings in the state. The series, "Till Death Do Us Part," led to the passage of a bill that imposed tougher penalties and barred abusers from owning guns. It also won the 2015 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service.

Pardue joined more than 200 prize winners at the Newseum on Jan. 28 for a celebration of the Pulitzer Prize Centennial. The occasion marked the beginning of a yearlong series of events across the country. The prizes, administered by Columbia University, recognize the best work in journalism and the arts each year.

Keven Ann Willey, chair of the Pulitzer centennial committee, said they want to celebrate the first hundred years of journalism and the arts, and the values that are the foundation for the Pulitzers.

“But we also want to inspire the next generation, the next hundred years of exemplary journalism, arts and letters and the values that undergird all of that,” she said.

The Pulitzer Prize Board has organized talks, film screenings, book discussions and other events throughout the year to give the public the opportunity to interact with some of the reporting, photography and literature that won the prize.

The Workshop recently spoke with some of the winners to learn about the impact of their recognition, how Pulitzer values have inspired their work and their advice for aspiring young reporters.

James B. Steele, a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize in National Reporting, said the award reaffirmed to his newspaper at the time, The Philadelphia Inquirer, the value of digging deeper into matters of public interest.

“It encouraged us to continue to follow a story where it led,” he said, adding that more people at the Inquirer also began doing more in-depth reporting.

Steele, together with colleague Donald L. Barlett, won his first Pulitzer in 1975 for the duo’s series that exposed the unequal application of federal tax laws. Their work also gave the Inquirer its first Pulitzer.

In 1989, Barlett and Steele received their second Pulitzer for their 15-month investigation of the "rifle shot" provisions in the Tax Reform Act of 1986. Lawmakers then inserted special-interest deals that were intended to benefit a specific individual or group. The series gained public attention, prompting Congress to reject proposals that gave special tax breaks to influential individuals and businesses.

Barlett and Steele went on to become one of the most respected investigative reporting teams in the country. After working together for more than four decades at the Inquirer, they also worked at Time magazine, where they earned two National Magazine Awards, and now are contributing editors at Vanity Fair. They have also written eight books, the most recent of which, “The Betrayal of the American Dream,” made the The New York Times and Los Angeles Times best-sellers lists in 2012. The book, researched in part by Workshop staffers, and undertaken as part of a two-year project in which they wrote for the Workshop’s site, examined “what went wrong” in America to consistently undercut the middle class. “What Went Wrong” was also the title of an in-depth series and subsequent book done while they were Inquirer staffers. 

Michael Vitez and John Sullivan are two of many more reporters who in various ways continued Barlett’s and Steele’s legacy at the Inquirer.

Vitez, along with April Saul and Ron Cortes, won the 1997 Pulitzer Prize in Explanatory Journalism for a series that followed five critically ill people as they approached the ends of their lives.

Vitez said the inspiration was the work he did, not the award he won.

“It’s great to win a Pulitzer. It’s a wonderful thing,” he said. “But, really, it's the work that is the important thing — not the recognition you get for it.”

Receiving the award, he said, gave him great confidence. “I realized, when I did that work, what great work was. It gave me a bar to shoot for,” he said.

For Sullivan, who is now a reporter for The Washington Post's investigations team and a senior editor at the Workshop, knowing that he has done the kind of excellent work that colleagues and the board find worthy of a Pulitzer is incredibly satisfying and rewarding.

What the prize has given him is the freedom to do the kind of work he wants to do, he said. Sullivan also teaches a graduate practicum in investigative journalism at the American University, pairing students with reporters on various teams and projects.

In 2011, Sullivan led a team of five reporters who examined pervasive violence in the Philadelphia schools. The series, which triggered reforms to improve the safety of teachers and students, won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2012.

Sullivan was also a finalist for the prize in national reporting in 2009. He, John Shiffman and Tom Avril reported on how political interests have undermined the role of the Environmental Protection Agency.

Asked for advice for aspiring investigative reporters, Steele said the most important thing is to look at the larger picture. He said reporters should try to devote as much time as possible to helping people understand complex subjects.

Humanizing stories is another key element in reporting, Steele said, because that's the way for people to respond to stories.

“People are the heart of all stories,” he said. “People, the good or the bad.”

Pardue of The Post and Courier said many reporters are doing great work overseas, covering the wars, but he also points out that a "war" might also be going on in one's own backyard. Reporters need to get out there and look at what's troubling their own community because that's where stories are.

Vitez said one shouldn't worry about recognition because the only thing that will drive a reporter to greatness is the pursuit of truth.

"You have to love the craft. You have to love what you do. That's got to be all that matters," he said.

Sullivan said reporters should find their own sense of motivation — and that can't come from bosses, the news organization or awards. It has to be a determination borne out of a desire to do work that one loves and cares about.

"And that's its own reward," he said.

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