Pulitzer surprise: the Sun Sentinel’s rise to a gold medal

How a dark-horse series on police speeding won for public service

In this year’s American Society of News Editors, Investigative Reporters and Editors, and Scripps Howard competitions, Fort Lauderdale’s Sun Sentinel was runner-up for its gripping series exposing widespread reckless speeding by off-duty cops and the death and injury it caused in South Florida.

So how did the Tribune Co.-owned Sun Sentinel emerge this week with the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, considered the gold standard of journalism awards?

The answer can be traced to the Pulitzer process itself and to certain qualities of the 19-member Pulitzer board, which, in secret deliberations, makes the final decision. Among the qualities: a maverick streak and willingness to use the prize to send subtle messages to the news business as a whole.

Board members generally don’t comment on their decisions, deferring to longtime Pulitzer Prize administrator Sig Gissler, who, in turn, deflects most questions by saying the award citation “speaks for itself.” Still, he concedes in an interview, “there’s always a certain pleasure in finding a smaller news organization that’s done outstanding work.”

Indeed, dark-horse winners of the public service prize haven’t been that unusual over the Pulitzers’ 97-year history: Most recently, the tiny Bristol, VA, Herald Courier won in 2010 for its stories on mismanagement of mineral-rights royalties, and in 2009 the Las Vegas Sun got the nod for detailing, and helping to halt, a spate of construction worker deaths.

But, the Pulitzers often do go with the favorites: the 1972 gold medal to
The New York Times for the Pentagon Papers, for example, with the next year’s going to The Washington Post for Watergate. The Boston Globe’s 2003 gold medal came as a shock to exactly no one who’d been following its monumental disclosures about sexual abuse and cover-ups in the Catholic Church. (Last year’s was won by another long-time Pulitzer powerhouse, albeit now-diminished, The Philadelphia Inquirer.)

Asked about this year’s choice—and past dark-horse winners from Bristol and Las Vegas—Gissler says, “We pay attention to cases where there’s an extraordinary use of limited resources,” while, naturally, keeping standards high.

Limited resources? We’ve got those! says Sun Sentinel editor Howard Saltz who, in an email response to questions, reports staff cuts had more than halved the newsroom to 150 members by the time he arrived from Denver-based MediaNews Group in August 2011. “We got more investigative reporting at the Sun Sentinel not by adding staff but by shifting priorities,” he says, adding: “If anyone thinks this isn’t working, I can ask my new friend, Mr. Pulitzer Prize, to share his thoughts.”

The public service award—the one that comes with the familiar gold medal, and only goes to a news organization, never to individual journalists—is the first Pulitzer of any kind for the Sun Sentinel.

“It had that every-person appeal,” says Peter Bhatia, editor of Portland’s Oregonian and one of seven public-service jurors who picked the Sun Sentinel’s “Above the Law” series as one of its three finalists in the first round of the Pulitzer competition in February. “We all say when we see a speeding cop, What’s that about?” The six-time Pulitzer juror, on his first public service panel, was impressed, too, by the ingenious plan devised to measure what seemed immeasurable: both individual cop-car speeding cases, and how fast each car actually sped. “They thought big, and made something happen.”

At the paper, the first inkling that an investigation might be in order came after a very public incident in October 2011. A Miami police officer going to a second job as a security guard was clocked going 120 miles an hour on a local highway when a state trooper pulled him over. News of the arrest went viral online, and the Miami Herald devoted much more initial coverage to the case than the Sun Sentinel, but Sally Kestin, who eventually became the Fort Lauderdale paper’s lead reporter on the story, says, “We saw this kind of thing all the time, and we thought it was the tip of the iceberg…We asked ourselves, How can we prove that?”

Kestin came up with the idea of using “SunPass” toll-booth records, getting raw material in readings from 3,915 police-car transponders—which officials initially refused to produce, arguing they weren’t public. Those records helped document the high frequency of high-speed driving by police officers done off-duty, or in non-emergency cases. The problem, then, was to prove how fast they actually drove.

“Even once we got the data - more than a million records - the technical challenges were daunting because the raw information does not allow speed calculations,” according to database specialist John Maines, quoted in the Sun Sentinel’s Monday account of its Pulitzer. The answer: Reporters measured the distance between toll plazas, using Garmin GPS devices, for the most part, and allowing the journalists to calculate the police-car speeds themselves. Over three months they traced nearly 800 instances of police from various agencies driving at between 90 and 130 mph.

After the first story, “For cops, no limit,” with a joint Kestin-Maines byline, a second article explored horrifying cases of civilians and police alike being killed or injured in cop-speeding accidents—320 crashes and 19 deaths since 2004—and noted that only one officer went to jail as a result, serving 60 days. A third installment looked at the culture of police-officer speeding, and how it could be changed.

The Pulitzers called special attention to the remarkably clear impact of the series. Especially in public service, the Pulitzers look for what a news organization accomplished with its work, and the Pulitzer citation said this story led “to disciplinary action and other steps to curtail a deadly hazard.”

In fact, five follow-up stories documented the punishment handed out to officers, including the firing of the one whose case sparked the investigation. Police authorities lauded the Sun Sentinel’s work. And the Sun Sentinel’s own speed-measuring procedure showed “an 84 percent drop in high-speed incidents over the same period last year.”

While it isn’t known for sure how strongly that factor influenced the Pulitzer board, Bhatia says jurors weighed it heavily in putting the Sun Sentinel among the three finalist nominations. The others: a project by the Center for Investigative Reporting’s California Watch, exposing how a state-run police force failed to protect horribly abused developmentally disabled patients, and a Washington Post examination of flawed evidence being used in criminal cases the Justice Department prosecuted.

Not everyone in the Sun Sentinel newsroom was totally shocked by the announcement.

Editor Saltz says that on Saturday he’d been called by a source saying “we would probably have cause to celebrate.” Two other tips came in to other staffers. But nobody “said exactly what we had won, or even that they were 100 percent certain.” Still, Saltz quietly secured some champagne.

“There was no downside,” he explains. “Had we not won we could have drowned our sorrows. “

For Kestin’s part the afternoon was a joyous blur. She didn’t even become aware until two hours later that bombs had exploded at the Boston Marathon finish line - news that broke at almost the same time Sig Gissler’s Pulitzer announcement was being broadcast to newsrooms around the country, including the Sun Sentinel’s. Gissler had noted the developing reports from Boston as he spoke. But Kestin missed it. Since “our category was the first announced, Sig got ‘Sun Sent’ out before the newsroom erupted in screams,” Kestin says. “I didn’t hear anything else after that.”

In terms of the Pulitzer awards, there was an even bigger surprise in his announcement, Gissler notes: the selection of three reporters from startup nonprofit website InsideClimate, who won for national reporting, for work disclosing flawed regulation of oil pipelines. That beat out finalists at the Boston Globe and Washington Post, in a case, Gissler says, of the Pulitzer Board suggesting “the way the ethos of journalism is being reconfigured.” (Last year’s national reporting Pulitzer had gone to a Huffington Post reporter.)

Perhaps by widening the Pulitzer radar screen to include the Sun Sentinel’s less-well-known public service, something else was being said about the ethos: that severe staff retrenchments needn’t get in the way of solid watchdog reporting.

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Roy J. Harris Jr. is a former Wall Street Journal reporter, magazine writer and online editor, and the author of Pulitzer’s Gold: Behind the Prize for Public Service Journalism. Tags: ,