Comunicar Journal Blog

Data News in the Pulitzers

by Roselyn Du

The Pulitzers are now in their centennial year. A hundred years is a long way to go. Along the way, there are milestones that are remembered. One in 2012, marked by Huffington Post. Its military correspondent David Wood won in the National Reporting category with his 10-part series “Beyond the Battlefields”. That milestone celebrates the first win for the then seven-year-old Huffington Post and evidences the Pulitzer committee’s recognition of online-only news. As the president and editor-in-chief of the “paper” Arianna Huffington commented, it was an affirmation that great journalism could thrive on the Web.

Another in 2016. Yes, freshly out yesterday. The New Yorker became the first magazine to win a Pulitzer, with Emily Nussbaum’s critical reviews. In 2015, for the first time ever, magazines were permitted to enter the awards and the New Yorker was finalisted for feature writing.

I am actually waiting for another milestone. One for data journalism. In the journalism classes I teach, I’ve always asked my students, “when do you think there will be an award category in the Pulitzer for data news?”


Who knows. But there will be one sooner or later, I think. That “sooner or later” has been pretty vague however, until yesterday, when this Pulitzer centennial year’s results were announced. As a matter of fact, I saw data news winning. The Washington Post’s police shooting reports  (in the National Reporting category) is typical data news. It is a “revelatory initiative” in creating and using a national database to show how often and why the police shoot to kill and who the victims are most likely to be. The Post organized an extraordinary team of reporters, editors, researchers, photographers and graphic artists and painstakingly put together a database containing the details of 990 fatal police shootings across the nation in 2015 and a series of articles describing trends in the data. The data show that about one-quarter of those fatally shot had a history of mental illness; most of those killed were white men; unarmed African Americans were at vastly higher risk of being shot after routine traffic stops than any other group; the vast majority (74%) of people shot and killed by police were armed with guns or were killed after attacking police officers or civilians or making direct threats; and that 55 officers involved in fatal shootings in 2015 had previously been involved in a deadly incident while on duty. Very revolutionary new way of story-telling. Data mining, data analysis, and data visualization all in a thoughtful and beautiful way.

Well, yes, this Pulitzer is not under a stand-alone category named “data news” yet, but it does mean something in the, maybe near, future.

We have entered what is called “the age of data” and “the age of new media.” Data journalism is the marriage of the two. With vast amounts of data now openly accessible online, and the new technologies available to explore, analyze, and visualize data, news media are increasingly making use of these valuable mines of data to source and produce their stories. Data journalism – the use of numerical data in the production and distribution of news – is an emerging area in the field. The very old-fashioned Pulitzer Prizes, after 100 years of amusement, may be enlightened by this new era of big data mixed with new technologies. It may decide to change, just like it has in its past.