The Pulitzer Prize: 100 Years of Honoring Journalism That Makes a Difference

By Roy J. Harris Jr.
A photo from the Pulitzer Prize-winning AP series “Seafood from Slaves” shows Thai and Burmese fishing boat workers sitting behind bars inside a cell at the compound of a fishing company in Benjina, Indonesia, Nov. 22, 2014. AP PHOTO/DITA ALANGKARA
Roy J. Harris Jr., a retired Wall Street Journal reporter, celebrates the centennial of the Pulitzer Prize.

The 2016 Pulitzer Prizes for journalism — the 100th year in which they have been awarded ­— underscore the vital watchdog role of a free press in a democracy. They also continue a tradition of recognizing journalism that makes a difference in our communities, the nation and the world.

This was most dramatically reflected in the Public Service gold medal, which was awarded to the Associated Press for "Seafood from Slaves" — a series of articles revealing that slavery still exists in the 21st century in a global fishing industry that delivers seafood to American stores.

The watchdog role was also exemplified by the Tampa Bay Times’ "Failure Factories,"  which won the Local Reporting award for detailing how racial segregation of schools in a Florida county led to devastating results for students.  The power of journalism to shine a spotlight on governmental failings was reflected in The Washington Post’s "Fatal Force," which received the National Reporting prize for tracking police shootings that killed 990 civilians in 2015 and providing a more complete account than the federal government.

This year’s centennial offers an opportunity to focus on what makes journalism’s highest honor so meaningful.

Since 1917, when the first prizes were awarded, the Pulitzer Prize has been a force for raising journalism standards and maintaining them at the highest level. The work the award has celebrated has often made a difference in our society by exposing abuse, neglect and corruption and prompting reforms to address wrongdoing. In the process, the Pulitzers have reflected important strands of American history.

High Standards

The Pulitzer Prizes are not just the nation’s oldest journalism awards; they are the oldest annual American awards of any kind. And they are not just for journalism; newspaper pioneer Joseph Pulitzer — who dreamed up the idea and left the money for the prizes to Columbia University — wanted them to be given to America’s best writers of fiction, history and drama as well.

In fact, Pulitzer explained late in his life that he hoped that giving awards for both journalism and literature would help "elevate" the business of news reporting. American literature was popular in the early 20th century, but newspaper work was not well respected. There were no journalism schools (Pulitzer’s gift to Columbia established one there), and few standards for good reporting existed. Pulitzer intended for his journalism prizes, initially given only in three categories — Public Service, Reporting and Editorial Writing — to create models for others to follow.

He eventually succeeded beyond anyone’s imagination. The exemplary reporting honored with Pulitzers through the years has revealed government and corporate wrongdoing, made workplaces safer, helped clean up the environment, and served communities in times of crisis. One example: the 2006 Public Service prize, which went to Louisiana’s Times-Picayune and Mississippi’s Sun Herald for coverage offering vital information — and hope — to the beleaguered survivors of Hurricane Katrina.

In the 1920s and 1930s, the Pulitzers were one reason that the quality of American journalism began to show sharp improvement. Top editors served as Pulitzer board members and selected the winners; they looked not just for good reporting and writing, but for courage among journalists who took on challenging subjects. In those early decades, for example, the Pulitzers honored reporters who exposed the evils of the Ku Klux Klan, the secretive white racist group that viciously attacked blacks and other minorities.

As the popularity of the Pulitzers increased — and as more reporters aspired to do Pulitzer-worthy work — the prizes gradually expanded from the three original categories. Today, there are 14, including awards for editorial cartooning and photography.

Over the last two decades, the Pulitzer organizers have resisted efforts to further increase the number of prizes. Why? In part because they didn’t want to lower the standards by having too many prizes.

Making a Difference

Looking at past winners of the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, in particular, is like taking a walk through modern history. World War I, the Great Depression, World War II, the civil rights movement, the Sept. 11 attacks and many postwar social changes are mirrored in winners of the gold medal.

Two of the most famous Pulitzers were awarded in the tumultuous early 1970s.

The 1972 Public Service prize went to The New York Times for obtaining and analyzing the Pentagon Papers, the top-secret U.S. Defense Department study that showed how the government — which did not want the study released — had deceived citizens about the Vietnam War. This also struck a blow for press freedom. A year later, The Washington Post received the Public Service prize for its coverage of the Watergate scandal — reporting that was led by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein. Their coverage helped lead to the resignation of President Richard Nixon following revelations of widespread abuse of power and illegal activities engineered by his White House and political operatives.

This century began with equally impactful Pulitzer-winning work.

The Boston Globe won the 2003 Public Service prize for its disclosures about sexual abuse of youngsters by priests and the cover-up of those crimes by the Roman Catholic Church, leading to major reforms within the Church. That work was also the basis for the film "Spotlight," which won the 2016 Academy Award for Best Picture.

This year’s Pulitzer Prize for Public Service is a worthy successor to those illustrious examples of journalism.

The Associated Press’ "Seafood from Slaves" series not only described the horrors of human trafficking in Southeast Asia’s fishing business, but it traced individual seafood shipments produced under these conditions. One of the four AP reporters, Martha Mendoza, had special responsibility for tracking fish shipments to U.S. store shelves, showing American consumers that they were unwitting parties to the slavery.

The impact was extraordinary. More than 2,000 slaves, captives of Thailand’s fishing industry, were freed. (Because of the danger to captives interviewed by the AP, no articles were published until reporters, who had alerted authorities about the slaves, were assured that they had been released.)

Further, consumers in the U.S. launched protests about their markets carrying seafood harvested by slaves — leading suppliers and stores to change their policies to make purchasing more transparent.

Mendoza, a former elementary school teacher, said in a telephone interview that she believes strongly in helping students learn about watchdog journalism and its power to effect change. Over the past year she has addressed groups of students of all ages about what the AP stories mean for them in their lives.

"High-schoolers were surprised to learn that people are still held in cages, but they quickly grasped how technology — from satellite trackers to databases — was the key to saving them," she said.

"Today’s teens are incredibly well-informed consumers who want to understand the impact of their purchasing power," she added, "and they’re truly global citizens who care about people around the world. They’re fired up, and I always leave inspired."

Harris is the author of "Pulitzer’s Gold: A Century of Public Service Journalism." An updated edition was published in January by Columbia University Press.