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Revelations and Their Effects

Two basic elements that defined journalistic efforts as excellent, particularly investigative stories, stood out: (1) The story revealed something we did not know before and (2) this revelation had wider social effects. The first element, though different in quality, was a basic requirement of excellence in both countries. US award statements differed, however, by putting a much stronger emphasis on the second element, the concrete effects and tangible results and changes news stories stimulated. This pertains not only to the GPA, which describes itself as placing “a premium on investigative and enterprise reporting,” but also to almost all PP categories beyond the category “investigative reporting.” Additionally, what was remarkable is that the Prizes’ emphasis on effects increased over time.3 For instance, the PP juries based their judgments of excellence on news stories in the public service category—not necessarily focused on investigative achievements— much less on effects before 2000 than afterwards. Between 2000 and 2013, there were ten and between 1980 and 1999 only five statements that pointed to concrete effects. Some of these five discerned rather vague effects—“helped hold its community together”—while those after 2000 tended to be more concrete—“resulting in arrests and reforms” (2011), “leading to changes in policy and improved safety conditions” (2009) and so on (Pulitzer Prizes 2016a). Public service awards were at least partly event-driven, which was the case with Katrina and 9/11, where news were not outcomes of enterprise reporting. However, even in the context of these disasters, PP juries foregrounded effects but less concretely and purposefully.

The strength of effect claims varied. Some statements attribute very clear cause and effect relations to the prizewinning stories. This was the case for William K. Marimow of The Philadelphia Inquirer who received the PP for investigative reporting in 1985 “for his revelation that city police dogs had attacked more than 350 people—an expose that led to investigations of the K-9 unit and the removal of a dozen officers from it” (Pulitzer Prizes 2016b). The 2009 GPA for state reporting went to Raquel Rutledge (Milwaukee Journal Sentinel). The statement listed effects her story had: “Her watchdog report, ‘Cashing in on Kids,’ led to a government shakeup, criminal probes, indictments and new laws aimed at keeping criminals out of the day care business” (George Polk Awards 2010). Some claims remain more vague but still underline the worth of a story by its effects. For example, the 2006 investigative reporting PP went to Susan Schmidt, James V. Grimaldi and R. Jeffrey Smith (The Washington Post) “for their indefatigable probe of Washington lobbyist Jack Abramoff that exposed congressional corruption and produced reform efforts” (Pulitzer Prizes 2016d). Other justifications detour to public outrage for making effect claims, for instance, a story may have “aroused such widespread public indignation that Congress subsequently rejected proposals giving special tax breaks to many politically connected individuals and businesses,” exemplified by the 1989 National Reporting PP (Pulitzer Prizes 2016c). The weakest effect claims would either remain on the level of public indignation or at least attention to a given problem because of a news story.

The accentuation of effects in the USA is especially salient in comparison to Germany. While you can find PP and GPA award justifications that are content with revelation, TWP and HNP juries limit themselves almost exclusively to it. This is certainly also connected to a strong emphasis on feature writing. However, even when investigative journalistic efforts were honored, there was much more restraint about effects in the German cases if they were asserted at all. A typical evaluation of investigative excellence reads like this: “Their achievement was to discover and investigate step by step one of the greatest business scandals in the history of the federal republic” (Henri-Nannen Preis 2013). The awarded reporters of SZ were, furthermore, honored for penetrating the complexity of the issue, “which is hard to grasp even for accountants” (ibid.), against the odds of a defiant object of investigation—the multinational conglomerate Siemens. By far the strongest effect claim I could find in the German cases was in the statement of the 2013 HNP for investigative reporting: “The local reporter caught the scent and forced authorities to reopen the investigation” (Henri-Nannen Preis 2013).

There was another feature of acknowledging investigative achievements in Germany, which was not nearly as pervasive in the US award statements. A narrative of resistance and hardship appeared in many statements, which journalists endured during their investigation. Besides penetrating complex subject matters (intellectual hardship, as it were), the honored journalists acted against opposition of advertisers, sources and sometimes even members of their own occupation. To give examples of such hardships in the order just mentioned: Regarding a story about a doping scandal involving the Deutsche Telekom road cycling team, the HNP committee honored Spiegel reporters responsible “who have been pressured over and over again, who were subjected to massive economic pressure through imminent cancelations of advertisement, but who continued their investigation nonetheless.” In 2013 the HNP for press freedom, which usually goes to journalists in (semi-)authoritarian regimes, was awarded to a journalist of a local newspaper who reported on a group of Nazis in his town and continued despite severe attempts of intimidation (Henri-Nannen Preis 2013). The weekly magazine of SZwon the TWP in the general category for another doping story involving a soccer team: “A sports journalist who investigates doping networks is not even welcome among all colleagues, let alone athletes, operatives and soccer physicians” (Theodor-Wolff-Preis 2008).

This narrative is surprisingly absent in the US statements—surprising because of its performative import for attesting tenacity and intrepidness, which are dominant attributes of celebratory metajournalistic discourse (as the following chapters will demonstrate). Occasionally, reporting hardships entered PP as mere adjectives (partly for the lack of space). Even longer GPA statements did not provide much more than that, however: neither the mentioning of pressure by advertisers nor that sources or source-complicit news operations disapproved of the investigation.

Two cases of GPA statements between 1998 and 2012 indicated that news operations had to fight in court for documents to be released because institutions denied to disclose them. The 2008 GPA in local reporting, for instance, pointed out that “to break the case open, the reporters filed a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit that was heard by the Michigan Supreme Court” (George Polk Awards 2009). In this case, resistance meant unresponsiveness and lack of transparency. The most severe case in the entire body of texts, however, was the 2007 GPA for local reporting. It was awarded posthumously to Chauncey W. Bailey, editor of the Oakland Post, who was murdered during an investigation of a local business that had been linked to serious crimes (George Polk Awards 2008).

Although there surely must have been more examples of resistance than cases of litigation and existential threats, US award committees did not deem them worth mentioning. One interpretation is that pushback is more self-evident in US journalism, which has a longer and continuous muckraking tradition that permeates the occupational imaginary of journalism down to its local levels. German award statements frequently brought up more modest forms of opposition, conceivably because journalism is exposed to it to a lesser extent from the outset.

This is not to say that investigative journalism does not enjoy a prominent position in the German occupational culture; it has at least since the rise of Der Spiegel after World War II, but notably half a century later than in the USA. This was demonstrated by one of three controversies4 that involved revocation or non-acceptance of journalism awards during the sampling period: At the 2012 HNP award ceremony, eminent investigative reporter Hans Leyendecker (SZ), flanked by his two colleagues, went on stage, and refused to accept the prize for investigative reporting in protest against having to share it with the tabloid Bild. He referred to a “cultural break” that happened by honoring Bild with this award (Schneider 2012; Stern Online 2012). This incident stimulated discussion about the meaning of good (investigative) journalism in the days following the ceremony. Bild had been awarded the prize for uncovering and initiating a nepotism scandal involving former German president, Christian Wulff, which ultimately led to his resignation. The SZ team was awarded for an investigation that revealed corruption, bribery and extortion involving a Bavarian bank and Formula One officials and prompted criminal prosecutions.

An unusually detailed justification for the award indicated uneasiness with the decision, which followed a stalemate in the jury decision, as it later turned out. The statement asserted that “for the evaluation of investigative work, two criteria are important: the investigative achievement of the reporter and the social significance of the investigated revelation” (Henri-Nannen Preis 2012). The SZ story, the jury argued, was excellent in terms of the investigative achievement, the Bild story for its effects. The controversy centered on the question whether the HNP jury not only differentiated but also dissociated these two criteria. In a press release, the German journalist association “Netzwerk Recherche,” which is devoted to the advancement of investigative journalism, argued that “the jury of the HNP lacks understanding of journalistic criteria” and in the case of Bild “confused a successful ‘scoop’ with the greatest investigative achievement” (Schrom and Grill 2012). The release also urged the HNP to learn from the PPs if it wished to be taken seriously in the future.

A US reporter refusing to accept a PP is just as unimaginable as the New York Times sharing one with the New York Post. Newspapers in the USA parade the number of PP they have received in front of them and would never deny themselves this certificate of professional worth. Even though the PP also had its share of controversies, they never raised questions as fundamental as what the criteria of journalistic excellence are rather than what are the costs of their pursuit. Occupational prestige seems to be less conditioned by awards in Germany, especially by one particular award that enjoys such centrality as the PP. Some obituaries of awardees did not even mention their awards. In one case, an obituary did note that the deceased received a cross of merit (a state honor), yet it did not mention that he won the TWP (Der Spiegel 2006).

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