The More Things Change

The PolitiFact Pulitzer: new form, old function

Aron Pilhofer is right: PolitiFact’s Pulitzer win is in many ways a watershed moment for journalism.

In a blog post that’s been getting a lot of attention this afternoon, Pilhofer—The New York Times’s Interactive Newsroom Technologies editor—compares the significance of PolitiFact’s win for National Reporting to the 1989 win of “The Color of Money,” the Atlanta Journal-Constitution’s series on redlining that used what we now call computer-assisted reporting to uncover many of its revelations.

“It was after this series that newsrooms took notice” of CAR, Pilhofer notes.

And now, two decades and many Pulitzers later, virtually every major newsroom has someone (or many someones) who specialize in these techniques. In short, after “The Color of Money,” newsrooms got serious about CAR.

Two decades from now, we may very well refer to some significant event as a “PolitiFact” moment. As of today, newsrooms have to take web journalism seriously.

We very well may. And newsrooms certainly do have to take Web journalism seriously.

But PolitiFact isn’t merely about Web journalism in general; the project’s significance is more specific than the broad fact that its journalism happens to be published online. “That it has defined an entirely new form of journalism — one that was recognized with the most prestigious award in our field — is all anyone needs to know today,” Pilhofer writes in his post. As a preface to that rousing declaration, he submits: “That PolitiFact drops the narrative form is irrelevant.”

That PolitiFact has defined (if not created) an entirely new form of journalism is, yes, quite true. But I wouldn’t be so quick to discount the significance of PolitiFact’s relationship with narrative itself. PolitiFact doesn’t “drop the narrative form,” as Pilhofer had it, so much as it transforms and redefines that form itself. The project is, among other things, the embodiment of something we’ve known for some time now: that text is no longer information’s default delivery mechanism. That journalistic storytelling itself has—digitally, at least—taken on new dimensions.

In terms of presentation alone, PolitiFact’s journalism is both textual and infographical; its images aren’t merely incidental to the information being delivered (“art,” in the parlance of print), but integral to it. The site breaks informational delivery into its constituent parts—information, graphic summaries of that information, analysis that combines the two—and redistributes those units across text and image. PolitiFact modifies, if only slightly, investigative journalism’s atomic structure; and as it does so, it alters as well audience assumptions about what such journalism actually looks like. And should look like. No longer does narrative conform to recognizable, pre-scripted (and prescriptive) shapes—pyramids, upright or inverted, and the like; it adopts instead an amoebic quality. For PolitiFact, form fits function, rather than the other way around.

And the fact that a piece of journalism that looks so markedly different from its counterparts—both from its fellow finalists and from its fellows in investigative journalism more generally—has won the most prestigious prize in newspaper journalism means that the shift in question is occurring not only in journalistic narrative itself, but also in the standards by which we judge excellence among its ranks. PolitiFact’s Pulitzer win represents a revision of the definition of reportorial and narrative value.

The Pulitzers aren’t known to be terribly forward-looking; on the contrary, and largely by design, they tend to be fairly conservative when it comes to journalistic standards. Those standards may always be evolving, as Pulitzer administrator Sig Gissler noted at Monday’s awards announcement, but the evolution is a slow one. The tension between the inevitability of evolution and the enforcement of inertia is in many ways the point of the thing: by such means are traditions preserved.

But Monday’s announcement represented, as Pilhofer suggests, an evolutionary leap via consistency itself: a recognition that PolitiFact’s new species of journalism is not, in fact, a new species at all, but rather, simply, another member of the breed. PolitiFact’s award amounted to a declaration, handed down from the echelons, that, though the site and its online counterparts may represent a new journalistic phenotype, they are, genetically and thus ultimately, no different from that which came before them. In function, if not form, they carry on the best traditions of watchdog journalism—the very traditions that the Pulitzers have been celebrating, which is to say fostering, which is to say preserving, since 1917.

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Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.