image courtesy Fort Greene Focus
Despite some questionable awards and the occasional ex-post-facto scandal, the Pulitzer Prize remains journalism’s most coveted honor, and one that most everyone who is eligible hopes to someday win – most of the time.
For my hometown newspaper, the South Florida Sun Sentinel in Fort Lauderdale, this week’s honor for public service journalism was bittersweet at best. The paper was cited – most deservedly – for its in-depth, continuing coverage of the February 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in nearby Parkland. Quite apart from its outstanding coverage of the tragic Valentine’s Day events that left 17 dead and another 17 wounded, the paper and its website have, for more than a year, produced outstanding reporting on the school district and law enforcement failures that led up to the shooting, as well as of the self-serving obfuscation and spin that followed.
The local school superintendent, Robert Runcie, managed to keep his job after considerable debate in the community and a vote by the school board. Broward County Sheriff Scott Israel did not. He was suspended from his post in January by newly elected Gov. Ron DeSantis and has been fighting a losing battle in the courts to return to it. This has served only to delay a state Senate vote that would all but certainly ratify Israel’s removal.
The Sun Sentinel is a throwback to a style of journalism that has become increasingly rare in the years since Bush v. Gore, 9/11 and the U.S. invasion of Iraq. While its editorial page is solidly liberal and Democratic, as is Broward County overall, the paper’s news columns are generally free of the snark, slant and selective reporting that regularly infect coverage in outlets like The New York Times and The Washington Post. The notable exceptions – and I notice this almost every time – are the syndicated stories the Sun Sentinel occasionally picks up from those outlets.
Even in the Sun Sentinel’s editorial department, the newspaper sets itself apart. In its columns, and especially in its letters, the editorial page regularly reflects thoughtful, dissenting points of view. There has been no lack of emotion over the horrors of Parkland, and particularly in the controversies that followed over gun control and proposals to arm school personnel. Maintaining a fair and reasonably neutral perspective amid these debates is hardly a given in today’s journalism landscape.
The paper’s coverage has been notably free of the “explanatory journalism” and “news analysis” posturing that is the self-justification for much of the pseudo-news reported by its big-city brethren. As a reader, I appreciate being treated with the respect that comes with acknowledging that I am capable of forming my own conclusions about the facts.
For all the praise and prestige that accompanies a Pulitzer Prize, I have no doubt that the newsroom staff of the Sun Sentinel would trade it in a heartbeat if it could magically undo the awful reality of what happened that February day in Parkland. It can’t. So as the paper’s editor-in-chief, Julie Anderson, noted, “We wanted our reporting to make a difference so that this never happens again.” The only thing the Sun Sentinel could do was to try to illuminate the lessons that can be learned ahead of the next – seemingly inevitable – event of its type. And that is precisely what the newspaper did.
In a terrible irony, the Pulitzer juries awarded a separate special citation to the staff of Maryland’s Capital Gazette, an organization which was itself the victim of a mass shooting. In June 2018, a gunman forced his way into the Gazette’s newsroom, killing five employees; two others were injured in the attack. Despite the tragic loss of their colleagues, the staff of the Gazette continued to report on the shooting in the months that followed. In addition to the special award, the Pulitzer Prize Board made a bequest of $100,000 to be used to further the newspaper’s mission. The Gazette is a sister paper of the Sun Sentinel.
Reporter Selene San Felice expressed bittersweet emotions similar to those mentioned by the staff of the Sun Sentinel. “[I want people] to know that we do this not for us, but for the community,” San Felice said of the award.
The shooting at the Capital Gazette is a reminder that a free press does not come free. Journalists, like everyone else who is active and visible in public life, assume a certain degree of risk in the course of doing their jobs. Those who do their jobs most responsibly and diligently often take the greatest risks, as the regular killings of journalists in other countries attest.
If someone is going to take that risk, the journalism that accompanies it ought to be worthwhile. My hometown paper and its staff exemplifies what it still means to be an effective community news source and voice. This prize is well deserved, and the people who earned it have my gratitude.