NEW YORK (Feb. 24, 2021) – Long Island University (LIU) has announced the winners of the 73rd annual George Polk Awards in Journalism, honoring journalists in 18 categories for their reporting in 2020.
Almost half of the awardees won for reporting on the Covid-19 pandemic, which dominated the judging process, accounting for one quarter of all submissions. This year saw a record total of 592 entries, work that appeared in print, online or on television or radio and was nominated by news organizations and individuals or recommended by a national panel of advisors.
“As always, we strive to identify individual reporters who do significant work, not just the news organizations themselves,” said John Darnton, curator of the awards. “We have never seen a story on the scale of the pandemic. In large part it fell to the press to inform the public about it and the press performed admirably. Our eight Polk winning entries represent the best of the best.”
Four of the 2020 George Polk Award winners reported on the deaths of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor at police hands in Minneapolis and Louisville. Others detailed President Donald Trump’s controversial tax returns, delved into the complexities of the elections in Georgia, and revealed highly questionable practices by Facebook. Still others exposed racial discrimination at the Virginia Military Institute, documented how federal land grant universities were created on land taken from Indigenous peoples, and completed the investigation of a Mexican drug cartel that was started by a reporter assassinated in 2012.
The George Polk Awards were established in 1949 by LIU to commemorate George Polk, a CBS correspondent murdered in 1948 while covering the Greek civil war. The awards, which place a premium on investigative and enterprising reporting that gains attention and achieves results, are conferred annually to honor special achievement in journalism.
Long Island University Board of Trustees Chair Eric Krasnoff stated, “Now in its 73rd year, the George Polk Awards in Journalism chronicles an unbroken chain of journalistic excellence, integrity and bravery. Honest and independent reporting is our best hope to nurture and sustain an equitable democratic society. LIU is proud and humbled by its role in curating these proceedings.”
Beijing-based reporter David Culver, producer Yong Xiong and photo journalist Natalie Thomas of CNN receive the award for Foreign Reporting for giving much of the world its first on-the-scene look at the dangers posed by the coronavirus and the Chinese efforts to control its spread. Tapping into independent sources they developed during a trip to Wuhan that was cut short when the government ordered a lockdown of the city, the CNN crew did much of its early reporting from an enforced 14-day quarantine site.
Ed Yong of the Atlantic has won the Science Reporting award for his clear and insightful analysis of factors behind the spread of Covid-19 and failed efforts to bring it under control. Yong’s March 25 account, “How the Pandemic Will End,” correctly predicted its inordinately severe impact in the U.S., a circumstance his August 4 story, “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” explained in devastating detail.
The award for Medical Reporting goes to Dan Diamond of Politico for multiple accounts of Trump Administration interference with the Centers for Disease Control and other sources of medical and scientific expertise. Among the actions he revealed were efforts to reduce Covid-19 testing, pour $300 million into a celebrity ad campaign, send seniors $200 drug discount cards, ignore a “pandemic playbook” inherited from the Obama Administration and install a spokesman at the Department of Health and Human Services with orders to withhold or revise reports that did not hew to the official line.
Helen Branswell of the Boston-based science and medical news site STAT wins the award for Public Service for relentless coverage of all aspects of the pandemic that became must reading for the medical community and the general public. From her first posting January 4 alerting readers to a “growing cluster of unexplained pneumonia cases” in Wuhan to her December 31 take on experts’ frustration over how little they knew about a new variant of the virus, Branswell tracked the spread of the virus in 161 articles — more than three a week —that were almost uniformly timely and astute.
The award for Health Reporting goes to ProPublica for two series examining the pandemic’s disproportionate impact on Black Americans and meatpacking workers. Using data and anecdotal evidence, a team of reporters revealed high rates of infection in Black communities because of limited access to proper medical care. In another series, reporters Michael Grabell and Bernice Yeung found global corporations exposed low-wage food handlers to conditions that caused widespread Covid-19 outbreaks, even lobbying the federal government to declare them essential workers.
Eli Saslow of the Washington Post has been recognized in a first-time category, Oral History, for “Voices from the Pandemic,” 25 compelling personal narratives he crafted based on extensive interviews with individuals deeply affected by the virus. Saslow chose each to represent a segment of the American populace coping with grief, fear, guilt, bitterness, frustration, tension, dejection and other emotions, relating their stories in their own words while keeping his role invisible to the reader.
Matthias Gafni, Joe Garofoli and Tal Kopan of the San Francisco Chronicle have been honored with the Military Reporting award for disclosing the Pentagon’s punishment of Navy Captain Brett Crozier who sought to evacuate nearly 5,000 sailors in tight quarters aboard the USS Theodore Roosevelt to protect them from exposure to Covid-19. The Chronicle story forced the Acting Navy Secretary to resign and called into question the military’s approach to the pandemic. In the end a crewmember died and a thousand others tested positive for the virus, including Crozier, who lost his command, was almost reinstated and finally lost it for good.
The award for Magazine Reporting goes to Katie Engelhart of the California Sunday Magazine for “What Happened in Room 10?”. Focusing on one room in the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, scene of the nation’s first deadly Covid-19 outbreak, which led to 46 deaths, Engelhart’s seamless 17,000-word narrative was at once riveting storytelling and a deft analysis of what went so wrong in nursing homes across the country.
Luke Mogelson of The New Yorker has received the award for National Reporting for three magazine articles putting his extensive experience as a foreign war correspondent to use with firsthand accounts of domestic upheaval that sometimes turned violent. He produced probing portraits of Black Lives Matter activists in Minneapolis, anti-lockdown militia members in Michigan and competing left and right militants on the streets of Portland.
The staff of the Minneapolis Star Tribune has won the Local Reporting award for coverage of the death of George Floyd and its aftermath, starting with spot-on deadline work by police reporter Libor Jany and then delving into the background on Floyd and the officers indicted for killing him. Other articles explored the unsavory history of a precinct, destroyed by protestors, that was considered a breeding ground for renegade cops. The articles portrayed an ineffective police disciplinary process and reported on attempts to rethink the role of police and pick up the pieces in neighborhoods ravaged in the protests.
“George Floyd’s America,” a six-part series by a team of Washington Post reporters illustrating how uncanny a match Floyd’s life and death were for the national movement he came to symbolize, has won the award for Justice Reporting. Based on more than 150 interviews, the Post series detailed how entrenched poverty, structural racism, inferior education, police intimidation and a rigged criminal justice system dogged Floyd’s life from beginning to end.
The award for Television Reporting goes to correspondent Roberto Ferdman and his VICE News Tonight crew for breakthrough coverage of the shooting death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor in a “no-knock” police raid in Louisville and the investigations that followed. Their reports revealed a pattern of over-heavy police enforcement amid a culture that condoned misconduct and called into question official accounts of the raid and ensuing probes, including a highly suspect grand jury investigation.
The award for Political Reporting is presented to Stephanie McCrummen of The Washington Post for deftly capturing Georgia’s shifting political winds in three perceptive profiles in the run- up to the election. One highlighted the conversion of a suburban woman whose turn away from President Trump presaged his ultimate defeat. Another portrayed the re-election of a 76-year-old Democrat-turned-Republican sheriff as a reflection of resistance to change in the rural South. And the third chronicled the collapse of a Democratic Congressional campaign against a far-right conspiratorialist whose outlandish views would soon make her a pariah for many colleagues on Capitol Hill.
The award for Business Reporting goes to Ryan Mac and Craig Silverman of BuzzFeed News for a series demonstrating how Facebook exposes the public to disinformation, fraud and violence. They found the $800 billion social media giant was slow to remove extremist content, fired a whistleblower who determined it favored right-wing publishers and disregarded another who detailed how fake accounts were undermining the democratic process in India, Ukraine, Spain, Brazil, Bolivia and Ecuador as well as the U.S. In one egregious example, Mac and Silverman revealed that Facebook ignored 455 requests to remove an event page urging militants to bring weapons to a Wisconsin protest where two people were later shot to death.
Russ Buettner, Susanne Craig and Mike McIntire of The New York Times are honored with the Financial Reporting award for accessing and analyzing a trove of Donald Trump’s income tax information, a reportorial coup suggesting why Trump went to such lengths to hide it from public view. They reported that in 11 years before 2017, he paid no federal income tax, benefitting from such questionable write-offs as $70,000 for hair care, over $2 million in property taxes on a family retreat and almost $800,000 in “consulting fees” paid to his daughter. Perhaps their most stinging revelation was the amount Trump remitted in each of two years he did pay tax: $750.
Ian Shapira of the Washington Post has won the award for State Reporting for laying bare overt racism at the state-supported Virginia Military Institute. Among other things, he persuaded aggrieved Black cadets to open up about their experiences at the hands of whites. His series of articles led Governor Ralph Northam (an alumnus) to order an independent investigation. They pressured VMI’s board to remove a statue of Confederate general Stonewall Jackson and forced the resignation of VMI’s superintendent, who was succeeded by the first Black to lead the 181- year-old institute.
The Education Reporting award goes to Robert Lee and Tristan Ahtone of the Colorado- based regional magazine High Country News for “Land Grab Universities,” the result of a two- year investigation exploring the dark side of a federal initiative considered a hallmark achievement, the 1862 Morrill Act. The law transferred nearly 11 million acres to the states to fund the establishment of 52 land grant colleges. Nearly all that acreage, now worth an estimated half-billion dollars, was seized from 250 Indigenous nations, the magazine found. Its well- documented account sent shockwaves through campuses across the country where students and faculty demanded that institutions like MIT, Cornell and Cal-Berkeley find ways to right a 150- year-old wrong.
A Special Award is presented to the late Regina Martinez of Proceso magazine and Forbidden Stories —a global network of investigative journalists whose mission is to continue the work of reporters threatened, censored or killed. Eight years after the 2012 murder of Martinez, journalists following her leads produced “The Cartel Project,” which linked politicians to drug traffickers in the state of Veracruz and discovered that she had been preparing to publish an explosive report about thousands of individuals who had mysteriously disappeared. Forbidden Stories reporters interviewed sources who had never spoken on-the-record, revealing how local authorities sabotaged the investigation into Martinez’s death and put a scapegoat behind bars without proof — a tactic similar to one used by the Greek government in the aftermath of George Polk’s murder.
“This year, the outstanding reporting of these distinguished journalists told unprecedented stories of the greatest challenges our society has faced in generations,” said Long Island University President Kimberly R. Cline. “Long Island University is honored to recognize this year’s George Polk winners and their exceptional work as part of this long-established tradition.”
George Polk Award winners are traditionally honored at a luncheon ceremony in New York in the spring, where each briefly describes their reporting, following an evening seminar on LIU’s Brooklyn campus that delves more deeply into some of their stories. Because of the pandemic, this year’s luncheon has been cancelled, though winners will record remarks on a video that will be available on the Polk site. A Webinar, titled “The Press & the Pandemic,” will be aired at 6 pm on April 8. Laurie Garrett, the award-winning science writer, will moderate a discussion with three of the current Polk winners: David Culver, Helen Branswell, and Ed Yong.
John Darnton, Polk Awards Curator, 917-306-8046, John.Darnton@gmail.com
Ralph Engelman, Polk Awards Faculty Coordinator, 718-757-9294, Ralph.Engelman@liu.edu
About Long Island University (LIU)
Long Island University, founded in 1926, continues to redefine higher education, providing high quality academic instruction by world-class faculty. Recognized by Forbes for its emphasis on experiential learning and by the Brookings Institution for its “value added” to student outcomes, LIU offers over 250 degree programs, with a network of 270,000 alumni that includes industry leaders and entrepreneurs across the globe.