Pulitzer Prizes focus on coverage of pandemic and racial injustice

Pulitzer Prizes were awarded Friday to news organisations that provided in-depth coverage of the dramatic turns of 2020, a year dominated by a pandemic that left millions dead and a national conversation on race after the murder of George Floyd.

The prize for public service, considered the most prestigious of the Pulitzers, went to The New York Times for its coverage of the coronavirus pandemic, an award shared by many departments at the newspaper. The board called the Times’ coverage “courageous, prescient and sweeping.”

The Pulitzer board also recognized journalism that examined law enforcement practices during a year of worldwide street protests inspired, in part, by the murder of Floyd, a Black man, by a police officer in Minneapolis.

The award for national reporting recognised an investigative series on police dogs used as weapons, often against innocent citizens, a collaborative venture by four news organisations: The Marshall Project, a nonprofit outlet focused on criminal justice;, an Alabama news site; IndyStar, of Indianapolis; and the Invisible Institute, a journalism company based on the South Side of Chicago.

The Tampa Bay Times won the local reporting award for exposing a data-driven policing initiative in Pasco County, Florida, that intimidated residents and labelled some schoolchildren future criminals. The staff of The Star Tribune in Minneapolis won in the breaking news category for its coverage of the murder of Floyd and its aftermath, and 10 photographers from The Associated Press were honoured in the breaking news photography category for their coverage of the nationwide protests touched off by his death.

The Pulitzer Prizes, first given in 1917 and presented annually by Columbia University for excellence in journalism, books, music and drama, were announced via video livestream by Pulitzer board co-chairs Mindy Marqués González and Stephen Engelberg. Originally scheduled for April, the event was postponed as the pandemic lasted into 2021, giving board members more time to judge the entries.

The board leaders noted that journalists encountered “unparalleled challenges” last year as they worked remotely because of the coronavirus pandemic, and sometimes faced the threat of arrest or injury while covering street protests.

Darnella Frazier, the teenager who filmed the murder of Floyd, received a special citation. In her remarks Friday, Marqués González called Frazier’s video “transformative,” adding that it “jolted viewers and spurred protests against police brutality around the world.”

BuzzFeed News won its first Pulitzer, in the international reporting category, for its investigative series on the scale of China’s internment of Uyghurs, a mostly Muslim minority. Mark Schoofs, BuzzFeed News’ editor-in-chief, said in a statement that the articles in the series “shine desperately needed light on one of the worst human rights abuses of our time.”

Another first-time winner was The Atlantic, which was awarded the Pulitzer in the explanatory reporting category for coverage of the pandemic by Ed Yong. A second explanatory reporting prize was given to five Reuters journalists for an examination of a Supreme Court protection that shields police officers who use excessive force.

In the features article category, the board recognized two writers: Mitchell S. Jackson, a freelancer, who wrote for Runner’s World about the killing of Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old Black man who was murdered while jogging in Georgia; and Nadja Drost, also a freelancer, who wrote for The California Sunday Magazine on a group of migrants crossing the Darién Gap at the border of Colombia and Panama as they tried to make their way on foot to the United States. (The California Sunday Magazine suspended publication in October after its backer, Emerson Collective, an organization founded by billionaire investor Laurene Powell Jobs, severed ties with its parent company.)

For books, in the category of general nonfiction, the winner was David Zucchino for “Wilmington’s Lie: The Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy,” a deep study of a coup against the multiracial government in the coastal North Carolina city. Zucchino, a contributing writer for the Times, won a Pulitzer in 1989 for his reporting from South Africa.

Marcia Chatelain won the award in history for “Franchise: The Golden Arches in Black America,” on the relationship between McDonald’s and Black communities. Louise Erdrich won in the fiction category for the novel “The Night Watchman”; Natalie Diaz in poetry with “Postcolonial Love Poem”; and Les Payne and Tamara Payne in biography for “The Dead Are Arising: The Life of Malcolm X.”

In addition to its public service Pulitzer on Friday, the Times won for criticism, an honour that went to Wesley Morris, a critic-at-large who writes on a wide range of topics, often with an emphasis on contributions by Black artists to American culture. His 2020 work included a meditation on the important role played by Black Americans with camera phones in the civil rights movement. It was the second Pulitzer for Morris, who won in the same category for his essays at The Boston Globe in 2012.

The public service Pulitzer honoured contributions from several departments at the Times, including national, science, international, Washington, investigations, business, graphics, video, live briefings and audio. The board cited not only news articles that chronicled the pandemic’s deadly progress but also the graphics department’s virus case tracker, a video capturing 72 hours inside a New York hospital and an episode of “The Daily” podcast.

Among the coverage cited was a Feb 2, 2020, article by science reporter Donald G McNeil Jr., which sounded an early alarm about the COVID-19 virus. McNeil, a veteran of the Times, left the newspaper earlier this year after he was criticized for repeating a racial slur during a discussion of the word while he was taking part in a Times-sponsored student trip to Peru in 2019.

The Times marked its wins by assembling a group of staff members in its newsroom, which has been largely empty since last March, when the great majority of Times employees started working remotely. Dean Baquet, the executive editor, noted that “literally hundreds of people had a hand” in the pandemic coverage.

“You did something historic and large here,” he said in his remarks, “something that will stay with you forever, I hope.”

Emilio Morenatti of the AP was awarded the feature photography prize for a series on the pandemic’s impact on older people in Spain. The Pulitzer for audio reporting, in the second year of that category, was awarded to four National Public Radio reporters for the podcast “No Compromise,” an examination of guns in America.

The commentary prize went to Michael Paul Williams of The Richmond Times-Dispatch in Virginia for his columns on the removal of Confederate monuments around the city. The board called his work “penetrating and historically insightful.” The Los Angeles Times’ Robert Greene won the editorial writing award for a series on criminal justice reform.