A Brief History of the Pulitzer Prize

Newsrooms around the country will find out on April 16 if they will receive Pulitzer Prizes, arguably the most coveted award for journalists.

The two dozen current prize categories for journalism include: feature writing, public service, investigative reporting, local reporting, national reporting, international reporting, breaking news reporting, commentary, criticism, editorial writing, editorial cartooning, breaking news photography and feature photography. Letters, drama and music also have awards categories.

MediaFile took a look back at the highs, lows and fun facts of the award’s history.

Young Stars

In 2012, Harrisburg Patriot News’ Sara Ganim, then 24, joined the list of some of the youngest Pulitzer Prize winners for reporting on Penn State’s scandal, breaking the news that a grand jury was investigating sexual abuse allegations against ex-Assistant Football Coach Jerry Sandusky.

Other young winners include Stephanie Welsh, who won the 1996 Pulitzer for feature photography at the age of 22, and Jackie Crosby, who won the 1985 Pulitzer for specialized reporting at the age of 23.

Controversies

Despite finalists, the Pulitzer Prize board has decided at times not to award any prize at all in some categories, most recently for feature writing in 2014. In the past decade, five categories have lacked winners, including editorial writing and fiction in 2012, breaking news reporting in 2011 and editorial writing again in 2008.

The Pulitzer website anticipated discussion of its controversies, writing  on its website, “Over the years the Pulitzer board has at times been targeted by critics for awards made or not made. Other controversies have arisen over decisions made by the board counter to the advice of juries.”

Critics of the awards have speculated that its choices for winners show liberal bias, with FrontPageMag going so far as to say that “no conservatives need apply.” The Pulitzer website notes that “the board has grown less conservative over the years in matters of taste.”

The Huffington Post’s win for national reporting in 2012 sparked a discussion on whether the Pulitzer Prizes’ embrace of online news outlets marked a change for the better or the worse.

“People in the online world quietly celebrated the idea that something as comparatively new and as oft-derided as the HuffPo could beat established news organisations,” wrote The Guardian’s Emily Bell. “But they also moaned that false definitions of what counts as a ‘newspaper’ place restrictions on others who might compete.”

Perhaps the most famous scandal surrounding the awards was when The Washington Post returned Janet Cooke’s 1981 Pulitzer after she admitted to editors that her 2,200 word story “Jimmy’s World” was fiction.

Her invention of the eight-year-old heroin addict at the heart of the story also caused embarrassment for city officials. After the piece was published, then-D.C. Mayor Marion Barry said officials knew who Jimmy was and that he was in treatment, later retracting his statement. The police also called off a citywide search for the boy.

Nearly four decades later, the ramifications of Cooke’s story still loom large in conversations about journalism ethics. The Impact’s Shantal Marshall wrote a personal take on the story’s shadow.

“The journalism field is challenging as it is for women and minorities, but it’s even more challenging since Cooke fabricated an entire story,” she wrote. “It directly affects my life because future employers may associate me with her. Cooke was a young, African-American female and like many others at this college, I fall into the same categories.”

In 2016, the Columbia Journalism Review revisited the infamous story, calling Cooke the “fabulist who changed journalism.” CJR’s Mike Sager noted that Cooke’s transgression at the age of 25 marked the beginning of the public’s distrust in the media.

“Not only did she fabricate; she won the Pulitzer,” he wrote. “Not only did she lie; she did so in the grandest fashion, on the biggest stage, and in the process disgraced her employers, pulling the wool over some of the brightest eyes in the business.”

Are Pulitzers Overrated?

In recent years, some media outlets have questioned if the reputation and importance of the awards are overblown.

Jack Shafer wrote in 2004 for Slate that the awards are overhyped and self-validating for newspapers.

“Pulitzers for journalism aren’t for the best journalism of the year, merely the best newspaper journalism of the year,” he argued. “Make that the best American newspaper journalism of the year.”

The Washington Post’s Roy J. Harris Jr. debunked myths about Pulitzers, including that the awards go to the best in American journalism.

“Actually, the journalism Pulitzers are newspaper-centric and limited in their scope,” Harris wrote. “Designed as honors for the nation’s dailies and the wire services that serve them, the prizes never have been extended to TV news or magazines, except those that appear as newspaper supplements.”

Harris said that, contrary to popular belief, small newspapers do have a chance to win despite the major wins of large newsrooms like The New York Times and The Washington Post.  Last year, the 10-person Storm Lake (Iowa) Times won the prize for editorial writing.

And, the prizes are not as old fashioned as some believe.

“Certainly, the Pulitzer Prizes have been slow to change — almost as slow as the newspaper business has been to adapt to the Internet,” Harris wrote. “But lately, some of the best online news reporting and multimedia storytelling are being honored. And the Pulitzer board has had a number of younger, non-newspaper members join it lately, bringing more experience in digital and multimedia journalism.”

Whether the award still means anything or not, a few lucky journalists will join that exclusive club on Monday.

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