Pulitzer Awards First Prize To New Media Outlet

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The Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's most prestigious awards, were issued yesterday. Among the winners was Sheri Fink, a physician turned reporter who investigated wrongful death allegations against doctors in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina for the online news organization ProPublica. Sheri Fink joins host Michel Martin to talk about the award. Fink is joined Bill Mitchell, of the Poynter Institute, a journalism school in Florida.

MICHEL MARTIN, host:

I'm Michel Martin, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News.

Just ahead, a Hollywood power player turns activist. We'll talk about why the man behind the blockbuster film "Avatar," director James Cameron traveled to the Amazon to take up a cause of indigenous people there. A dam that they say will destroy their way of life. We'll talk more about that in just a few minutes.

But first, the Pulitzer Prizes, journalism's most prestigious awards were issued yesterday and they marked a milestone. The first award for a story produced by so-called new media.

Sheri Fink, a writer for ProPublica.org was recognized for the investigative story, "The Deadly Choices at Memorial." That piece was also published in The New York Times magazine, which shared the prize. And it examined wrongful death allegations against doctors in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina. Pulitzer Prize winner Sheri Fink joins us now.

But we also called Bill Mitchell of the Poynter Institute, a journalism think tank. We wanted to talk more about the implications of this award. They're both with us now. Sheri, Bill Mitchell, thanks so much for joining us.

Mr. BILL MITCHELL (Poynter Institute): Good to be here.

Dr. SHERI FINK (Journalist): Thanks for having us.

MARTIN: Now, Sheri, congratulations, of course.

Dr. FINK: Thank you.

MARTIN: It must have been exciting.

Dr. FINK: Tremendously exciting. I don't think I still quite believe it.

MARTIN: Well, talk to me a little bit about how you got onto this story. And I think it's worth mentioning, you are yourself a doctor. So, I think that probably, I don't know, if it helped the process. But how did you get into this story?

Dr. FINK: I think I got into it like most people heard about this case it was why we publicized when a well-respected doctor and two nurses in New Orleans were arrested on accusations, actually, not just on wrongful deaths, which has come up, but on second-degree murder charges. And that was just a stunning accusation. And I had a couple years before that written a book, "War Hospital" about doctors who worked for three years under siege in war time. And I had never heard of anything like this. And so it really intrigued me and I really wanted to learn more.

MARTIN: So, obviously you had the professional background and you also, but this was and there was, of course, a court case and there was a lot of, sort of, public records, but you then went on and dug into this for two years. Tell us a little bit more, if you would, about the process, how long you reported this, how much time it took and briefly, if you can, what conclusions you came to.

Dr. FINK: The reporting, I guess my first trip was in February of, gosh, 2007 and the piece came out about two-and-a-half years later. So, of course, that wasn't the only thing I was working on. But it was a long process. And like you said, there was a criminal legal process going on when I started looking into this story. And that ended up a grand jury considered those charges and they ended up not indicting the medical professionals.

And then I kept looking further into the story and what I found was that while these particular health professionals advised by their lawyers not to discuss what they had or hadn't done, you know, didn't want to speak about those exact issues, there were other physicians at the hospital who were willing to explain to me that they had intentionally hastened patients' death in the aftermath of Katrina in one of the hospitals that had been surrounded by water, cut off, really hot inside, no electricity, you know, terrible conditions for several days. And so the story really just tries to recreate that and show how decisions like that could actually be made.

MARTIN: Well, I think your story stands out and I think one of the reasons it was recognized that it combines a number of things. One, it tries to describe - it recreates a very dire situation. It tries to describe some very unique circumstances in ways that people who don't practice your profession can understand, and it is exhaustive.

So, Bill, the question I have for you is: Do you think someone without Sheri's background could have done this and without the freedom that she had working in the way that she did somebody who was normally just maybe covers courts or something for a traditional newspaper could have done this?

Mr. MITCHELL: That's a critical question, Michel. I think Sheri's work is a wonderful example of the way in which philanthropy and the partnership between a news startup like ProPublica and The New York Times, an established news organization, manages to pull off a very expensive, as you described it, exhaustively reported long-form example of great investigative journalism. The really tough issue still to be resolved for news organizations in this country is how to sustain that kind of intensive investigative reporting at the local level, where it's tougher to get, to pull together the resources to get the job done.

MARTIN: Do you have any sense, though, of how frequently these kinds of projects are done by traditional news organizations? I mean, these are the things that tend to be attention-getting. These are the projects that tend to win awards, but do you have any sense of whether these projects are as rare now as we seem to think that they are?

Mr. MITCHELL: Actually, remarkably, they're not so rare. I was a judge this year for the Goldsmith Investigative Awards and I was stunned at both the quality and the quantity of investigative reporting being done somehow by small news organizations, as well as the bigger ones. The question is, as the traditional funding models continue to erode, advertising and subscription prices on the newspaper side, how will this kind of reporting be funded in the future?

MARTIN: Well, the other question I have is how is the kind of reporting that isn't very sexy get funded in the future? Like covering the school board or covering the zoning commission?

Mr. MITCHELL: Very good question. Gwen Ifill is here this morning doing a series of community meetings on pretty much that topic. And the editor of the St. Petersburg Times, Paul Tash, made the point that what he worries about is coverage on the fringes of local communities. If you don't have enough reporters, these days in the way that you did before, to cover every local city council and police station, there's a lot of stuff that journalists simply won't know about that's happening and goes unreported.

MARTIN: Sheri, can I ask, what do you think was the key toward your completing this project successfully and to your satisfaction both as a doctor and as a journalist? What was it? Was it time? Was it a flexible schedule? Was it speaking the language of the people you're interviewing in the sense of really understanding their world? What do you think it was?

Dr. FINK: Well, I think just looking at the journalistic side of it, it was the incredible luxury, I have to say, in these days of having that backing, the luxury of time, the luxury of working at an organization that was funded to do specifically this type of work, you know, long form, long and deep investigations. And, you know, without the pressures of having to, like you said, put out daily stories every day. And there are people who do both. But I think it's a sort of a luxury to have the time, the resources, the money to make, you know, trips are costly to go down and spend long periods of time in other cities.

And so and I should say, really, there are so many other resources that both ProPublica and The New York Times magazine brought together that impacted this project, such as terrific editors, terrific researchers, fact checkers, terrific legal department. You can imagine that there are many legal issues, potential legal issues with stories like these. So, you know, the whole infrastructure, incredible Web teams that made a great presentation, a photographer who did great visual work. So, all of those elements really contributed to the story getting out there and making an impact and people's eyes actually being on it.

MARTIN: And ProPublica, I should mention, just launched a little over two years ago. It employs about 35 journalists and it's teamed with major news outlets, major newspapers and other major news outlets to do these kinds of projects. It is the first independent, nonprofit organization to win a Pulitzer. But Bill, again, and Sheri, I think maybe I'm going to ask you this question, too, would covering a beat day to day interest you?

Dr. FINK: Yeah. I think I do like - I like a mix of things. And that was also the great thing about ProPublica is that we do have a Web site and I could write every day. I could write as much as I wanted to. And I did, actually, after the story came out, did a lot of follow-up reporting during H1N1 season about kind of choices about who gets resources. If, you know, there's suddenly lots of patients with flu. There were different localities, states and even at the hospital level that were coming up, drawing up these plans that would have denied care to certain patients.

And this wasn't widely known on a local level. So we actually partnered, I think, with three of four newspapers around the country that I did stories on those subjects. And, likewise...

MARTIN: So, one doesn't preclude the other.

Dr. FINK: No, I don't think that it does.

MARTIN: And, so, Bill, I want to ask you the final question, the question that we were thinking about at the beginning of this conversation is is this the kind of the thing that gives hope to journalists, or traditional journalists? Or is this the kind of thing that just is another sign that the old ways are falling away and that the traditional work that many people see as their task is just to cover communities, give them the information that they need on an ongoing basis to be good citizens is in trouble? How do you read this development? And of course as happy as we are for Sheri, and we certainly are, because it was a lot of work and certainly excellent work that deserves recognition. Very briefly, Bill.

Mr. MITCHELL: It provides a lot of hope for journalism in the public interest. One of the most interesting things about Sheri's work is that despite, or maybe perhaps partly because of all the new funding models involved, the work that resulted stands up to the rigors of all kinds of journalistic standards. I don't believe there's a single, anonymous quote in that piece. And I think it's a wonderful example of very accountable, solid work.

MARTIN: Bill Mitchell is a faculty member of the Poynter Institute, that's a journalism think tank that promotes best practices in journalism, based in St. Petersburg, Florida. He joined us from there.

Sheri Fink is a reporter for ProPublica.org and a Pulitzer Prize winner for 2010. And, Sheri, once again, congratulations for your work, and thank you both so much for joining us.

Mr. MITCHELL: Thanks, Michel.

Dr. FINK: Thank you.

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