MEDIA

Why The Washington Post Won A Pulitzer For A Story The Guardian Also Owned

Both outlets investigated police shootings, but the award prompted debate over timing of the two projects.

04/22/2016 05:09 pm ET | Updated Jan 09, 2017
The Washington Post via Getty Images

NEW YORK -- The Washington Post and The Guardian began aggressively reporting last year on fatal police shootings in America, charting the phenomenon more comprehensively than even the federal government. They both built extensive databases, with slightly different methodologies, that are still being updated. And they've both recently won journalism prizes for their efforts. 

The Society of Professional Journalists honored both outlets Friday with awards for public service. The Guardian US, the British newspaper's digital operation in the states, won in the online category; The Post won for publications with a daily circulation over 100,000. 

But earlier this week, it was The Post alone that took home the Pulitzer Prize for National Reporting, a decision that disappointed The Guardian's staff and surprised others in the media. The Post and The Guardian had each won the Public Service Pulitzer in 2014 for reporting extensively on disclosures from National Security Agency whistleblower Edward Snowden, but this time only one outlet got the nod. 

The Pulitzer jury for National Reporting didn't consider The Guardian's work because it never entered that specific category, HuffPost has learned. 

News organizations are permitted to enter in up to two categories and The Guardian chose Explanatory Reporting and Public Service for the police killing series, according to a Guardian spokeswoman. The Associated Press won the Public Service award with a tough-to-beat investigation that led to 2,000 men enslaved in the fishing industry being released. ProPublica and The Marshall Project won the Explanatory award for a beautifully written investigative piece on a botched rape investigation.

For each category, a separate Pulitzer jury reads perhaps dozens of entries before presenting the 18-person Pulitzer Board with the finalists to then select a winner. The Pulitzer Board may move entries to other categories, but it's unlikely to do so if the entry was not already selected as a finalist by the juries. For instance, the board moved a Tampa Bay Times series on failing schools that had been selected as a finalist for Public Service into the Local Reporting category, where it won.  

"Pulitzer juries did not nominate the Guardian entries, hence they were not considered by the board," Pulitzer administrator Mike Pride said in an email. "Only on the rare occasions when the board fails to find a winner among the juries' nominees does it go beyond them." 

The Post deservedly received praise this week from peers, though Guardian reporter Jon Swaine took exception Wednesday when PBS promoted an interview with The Post's Wesley Lowery alongside the claim that "no one kept track of police shootings until this Pulitzer-winning project." 

Guardian spokeswoman Veronika Cernadas also questioned the accuracy of the PBS tweet, to which Lowery responded that The Guardian's project, "The Counted," had "not launched when we first began developing and publishing our work."

In a December news story, The Post reported similarly: "Shortly after The Post announced its project in May, the Guardian newspaper unveiled a similar database that seeks to track all deaths in police custody, whether by shooting or other means."

In a letter accompanying the Pulitzer package, Post Executive Editor Marty Baron distinguished between the two projects in terms of methodology and timing. "The Guardian’s effort, unveiled shortly after The Post’s, counted fatalities of all kinds in any encounter with an officer, whether on duty or off," he wrote. 

Both The Post and The Guardian closely covered fatal police shootings in 2014, most notably the killing of unarmed teenager Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri. They each separately ran into the problem of there not being adequate data on fatalities resulting from police shootings.  

On March 18, 2015, The Guardian examined the government’s failure to keep adequate records in an article headlined “The uncounted." The Guardian followed up three days later with another piece -- “The counted” -- that looked at how activists and citizen journalists have tried keeping track of police killings through sites such as Fatal Encounters and Killed by Police

On April 12, 2015, The Post published a deep analysis of police killings spanning a decade, though didn’t specifically mention any efforts on the part of the newsroom to track all police shooting fatalities. 

So both outlets were clearly immersed in the story in the spring of 2015. It wasn't until about six weeks later that both outlets, within a day of each other, revealed how they had been tracking 2015 fatalities from police shootings, in the case of The Post, or all killings at the hands of police, in the case of The Guardian. 

The Guardian sent out a press release on May 27, 2015, announcing its police killings project, called “The Counted,” would launch on June 1, 2015.

The Post was aware of The Guardian’s plans when it published an article based on its 2015 data. The story went up online the night of May 30 and appeared in the next day’s print edition. 

“We were getting ready to publish for a Sunday and we got — and one of our reporters got an email from someone at The Guardian saying, ‘Hey, you should report on our new database we’re going to put out on Monday,” Post database editor Steven Rich said at an investigative reporters and editors conference last month. “So we basically launched at the same time, which was advantageous for both of us.” 

Rich didn't mention the reporter by name, though sources told HuffPost that Lowery received The Guardian's release. 

The Post declined to comment.

In an email, Cernadas, the Guardian spokeswoman, congratulated The Post on its Pulitzer win and said the outlet is "pleased that the impact on government policy attributed to both our projects has been recognized this awards season." 

"The Counted database was launched in full with several articles on June 1," she wrote. "Our PR team at the time had contacted a number of reporters, including at the Washington Post, with embargoed details of the launch during the previous week." 

"We cannot comment on editorial decisions related to their project," she added. 

Indeed, The Guardian unveiled its database on June 1, 2015, and differed not only in tracking all police killings, but also in heavily relying on social media for gathering information. The Guardian also started publishing stories based on its data on June 1, including how unarmed black Americans are twice as likely to be killed as white Americans. The Post published its database on July 1.

And prizes aside, both news outlets have continued these journalism projects in the public interest. The Post has found 302 Americans killed in police shootings this year, while The Guardian has counted 315 killed in total by police.

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