United States Project

How a Pulitzer-winning series forced South Carolina to face its domestic violence problem

April 21, 2015

From the time its first installment was published, “Til Death Do Us Part,” a powerful series about domestic abuse in South Carolina from the Charleston Post and Courier, seemed destined for Pulitzer Prize contention.

And on Monday, the seven-part series was honored with the nation’s most prestigious journalism prize, the Pulitzer for public service. Judges called the work “a riveting series that probed why South Carolina is among the deadliest states in the union for women and put the issue of what to do about it on the state’s agenda.”

Produced by reporters Doug Pardue, Glenn Smith, Jennifer Berry Hawes, and Natalie Caula Hauff, with funding, editing help, and database training from the Center for Investigative Reporting, “Till Death” is a clear example of journalism that matters. What remains to be seen is if it can drive authorities in the state to finally act.

I spent most of the past decade as a reporter in South Carolina. When the crime statistics came out each year, local news outlets would report on how the state was among the worst in the nation for domestic violence and women killed by men. It was a sad ritual, one in which I did my part: usually one story, citing the latest figure, calling the usual suspects for comment, maybe reporting from a news conference held by whoever the attorney general happened to be at the time.

But 2014 was different. The Post and Courier went beyond the daily or weekly news cycle to show the brutal reality behind the numbers cited each year by media. The paper catalogued impunity for abusers, lack of support for the abused, and indifference from officials to explain why those numbers were the way the were—and why they weren’t changing. The largest newspaper in South Carolina absolutely shamed the state’s policymakers into making domestic violence a legislative priority.

Passages like this one, from the opening story of the series, stood out:

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When asked, most state legislators profess deep concern over domestic violence. Yet they maintain a legal system in which a man can earn five years in prison for abusing his dog but a maximum of just 30 days in jail for beating his wife or girlfriend on a first offense.

Or this one, describing the fate of a set of bills to toughen penalties for abusers and protect victims:

The bills languished in committees and died, with the exception of a lone provision that aims to protect the welfare of family pets left in the care of a person facing domestic abuse charges

That had happened earlier in 2014, during a legislative session that had ended like plenty before it—reform proposals introduced, earnest efforts on the part of activists, few results.

By that point, the Post and Courier team was deep into its work, which had begun in the prior fall, after another report about the state’s dismal record. By June 2014, with Post and Courier reporters making calls around the statehouse, lawmakers took note of the attention. The then-House Speaker contacted the paper “to say he was disappointed the session had ended with no action,” and pledged to move the issue forward.

In August, the paper’s series was published. And since then, domestic abuse has been on the state agenda in a big, sustained way. An ad hoc committee promised by the House Speaker met. When the attorney general held a “call to action,” he was flanked by top lawmakers and sheriffs and police chiefs from around the state. The governor, too, got on board and created a task force to combat the culture of domestic violence. The facts and stats and figures hadn’t changed. But the journalism changed, and it made the difference.

And so, have any laws actually changed?

“Not yet,” says Laura Hudson, who runs the South Carolina Crime Victims’ Council.

“Nothing has changed at all,” she told me Monday—at least, not yet.

That’s because while the issue is high on the agenda, the state House and Senate have two different bills and are still hashing them out. One sticking point has been over whether someone convicted of domestic violence should be able to own guns. Hudson says she expects to know within two weeks if the two chambers can get together and make something actually happen. If not, she says, well, maybe next year.

As for The Post and Courier, Hudson said she couldn’t give the paper enough credit, and she doubted anything significant would have come out of the legislature without the series. She noted that the paper didn’t just run the initial investigation, but has followed through, tracking legislation and reporting relevant updates. Consider an April 12 story by the paper’s statehouse reporter, who wasn’t on the original series, about one of the legislative sticking points. Its headline: “Lawmakers wary of domestic violence gun ban because of political risks.”

The Post & Courier deserves the Pulitzer it won this week. As for the state that provided the fodder for it—as they say down there, bless its heart.

Corey Hutchins is CJR’s correspondent based in Colorado, where he teaches journalism at Colorado College. A former alt-weekly reporter in South Carolina, he was twice named journalist of the year in the weekly division by the SC Press Association. Hutchins writes about politics and media for the Colorado Independent and worked on the State Integrity Investigation at the Center for Public Integrity; he has contributed to Slate, The Nation, the Washington Post, and others. Follow him on Twitter @coreyhutchins or email him at coreyhutchins@gmail.com.