The Pulitzer Board announced Monday that two series published by ProPublica were awarded Pulitzer Prizes. “Lawless,” a ProPublica Local Reporting Network project by the Anchorage Daily News that revealed how indigenous people in Alaska are denied public safety services, was awarded the prize for public service. “Disaster in the Pacific,” an investigation on the staggering leadership failures that led to deadly accidents in the Navy and Marines, won a national reporting prize. The two designations are ProPublica’s 6th Pulitzer win in 12 years and the first Pulitzer awarded to a Local Reporting Network partner.
Led by Daily News reporter Kyle Hopkins, “Lawless” was the first comprehensive investigation to lay bare Alaska’s failing, two-tiered justice system in which Native villages are denied access to first responders. In much of rural Alaska, villages can only be reached by plane, and calling 911 to report an emergency often means waiting hours or days for help to arrive.
The series evolved from a string of stories that Hopkins reported in 2018 for the Daily News, recounting horrific incidents of sexual assault in Alaska — which has the nation’s highest rate of sexual violence — and policing failures that have allowed offenders to continue the abuse with impunity. To fully investigate issues of lawlessness and sexual assault in the most remote communities in the U.S., the Daily News applied to participate in ProPublica’s Local Reporting Network. The program partners with newsrooms across the country, paying the salary and a stipend for benefits for local reporters who spend a year tackling big investigative stories that are crucial to their communities. Participating reporters work with a ProPublica senior editor and receive support, including from ProPublica’s data, research and engagement teams.
The collaboration’s first story, based on more than 750 public records requests and interviews, found that one in three rural Alaska communities has no local law enforcement of any kind. These indigenous communities are also among the country’s most vulnerable, with the highest rates of sexual assault, suicide and domestic violence. The series’ second major installment found that dozens of Alaska communities, desperate for police of any kind, hired officers convicted of felonies, domestic violence, assault and other offenses that would make them ineligible to work in law enforcement or even as security guards anywhere else in the country.
Next, Hopkins revealed how the state’s 40-year-old Village Public Safety Officer Program, designed to recruit villagers to work as life-saving first responders, has failed by every measure. Alaska had quietly denied funding for basic recruitment and equipment costs for these unarmed village officers while publicly claiming to prioritize public safety spending. “Lawless” also exposed how the Alaska State Troopers agency, created to protect Alaska Native villages, instead patrols mostly white suburbs surrounding cities on the road system like Wasilla. The series ended with a list of six practical solutions to Alaska’s law enforcement crisis, based on interviews with experts, village leaders, the Alaska congressional delegation and sexual assault survivors.
The Daily News and ProPublica faced a number of challenges in reporting the series. The first: No one knew which remote Alaska villages had police officers of any kind. So they built the first-ever statewide policing database by drawing on payroll, arrest and hiring records from communities spread across the state. They also contacted every village city government, sovereign tribal administrator and Alaska Native corporation in the state — more than 600 organizations.
The vastness of the state and the fact that 80% of communities aren’t on the road system posed another challenge. Journalists flew hundreds of miles, sleeping on the floors of schoolhouse libraries and riding in sleds and on snowmobiles. To aid the reporting, they also held a community meeting in Kotzebue, Alaska, where a 10-year-old girl had been raped and murdered in 2018, providing residents, advocates, tribal leaders and law enforcement their first chance for a public discussion on sexual violence. Throughout the year the reporters spoke to more than 300 people across the state.
Following publication of the first major story, U.S. Attorney General William Barr visited the state and declared the lack of law enforcement in rural Alaska to be a federal emergency. The declaration led the Department of Justice to promise more than $52 million in federal funding for public safety in Alaska villages. The U.S. Attorney’s Office in Anchorage announced the hiring of additional rural prosecutors, while Gov. Mike Dunleavy said the state will post 15 additional state troopers in rural Alaska. In addition, the Alaska Police Standards Council has proposed changing state regulations that govern the hiring and screening of village police officers, and Alaska legislators proposed legislation that would increase pay for VPSOs and overhaul funding of the program.
The Daily News’ Loren Holmes, Bill Roth, Marc Lester, David Hulen, Anne Raup, Vicky Ho, Alex Demarban, Jeff Parrott, Michelle Theriault Boots, Tess Williams, Tegan Hanlon, Zaz Hollander, Annie Zak, Shady Grove Oliver and Kevin Powell, as well as ProPublica’s Charles Ornstein, Adriana Gallardo, Alex Mierjeski, Beena Raghavendran, Nadia Sussman, Lylla Younes, Agnel Philip, Setareh Baig and David Sleight also contributed to the series.
“The ProPublica Local Reporting Network was started to give local newsrooms across America the resources and support they need to execute investigative journalism that digs deep and holds power to account,” Ornstein, a ProPublica deputy managing editor, said. “This powerful collaboration with the Anchorage Daily News investigation does exactly that, going far beyond reporting on isolated incidents to provide meticulous research and context on how the justice system has failed Alaska’s most remote and vulnerable communities. Most importantly, it has been a force for real change.”
In their “Disaster in the Pacific” series, ProPublica reporters T. Christian Miller, Megan Rose and Robert Faturechi centered on three deadly accidents in the Navy and Marines in 2017 and 2018. They exposed America’s vaunted 7th Fleet as being in crisis with broken ships and planes, poor training for and multiple warnings ignored by its commanders. The costs: 17 dead sailors in crashes involving Navy warships, and six Marines killed in a training accident.
The back-to-back accidents in 2017 and 2018 gained initial attention from Congress and the national media, but they had been told an incomplete, misleading and dangerous story of half-truths and cover-ups. ProPublica’s series provided the first full accounting of culpability, tracing responsibility to the highest uniformed and civilian ranks of the Navy. The reporting team spent 18 months on the investigation, obtaining more than 13,000 pages of confidential Navy records and interviewing hundreds of officials up and down the chain-of-command.
The first article in the series, “Fight the Ship,” reconstructed a 2017 crash involving the USS Fitzgerald, one of the deadliest accidents in the history of the Navy. The story showed that the accident was entirely preventable, and that the Navy’s senior leadership had endangered the warship by sending a shorthanded and undertrained crew to sea with outdated and poorly maintained equipment. To show readers what happened, ProPublica hired designer Xaquín G.V. Working with investigations producer Lucas Waldron, Xaquín used geodata on the ships’ locations, mapped the path of each vessel and created a graphic that simulated the crash, down to the moment the Fitzgerald was sent spinning out of control, rotating 360 degrees. The team also collected radar images, ship blueprints, hand-drawn images made by surviving sailors and video taken inside the ship, which allowed them to portray the disaster from the perspective of the sailors onboard.
A second story, “Years of Warnings, Then Death and Disaster,” detailed how the fatal crash of the USS Fitzgerald, and of the USS McCain weeks later, were the result of a congressional gutting of the Navy and the Navy’s prioritization of building new ships. Top Navy officials gave urgent, repeated warnings to Navy Secretary Ray Mabus about the deadly risks facing its fleet, including being short of sailors, sailors poorly trained and worked to exhaustion, warships physically coming apart, and ships routinely failing tests to see if they were prepared to handle warfighting duties. They were ignored, told to be quiet or even ordered to resign.
Another story captured the Marine Corps multiple failures that were responsible for the deaths of six men in a nighttime training exercise 15,000 feet above the Pacific — an accident that senior leaders had been warned was possible, even likely. ProPublica created an animated short documentary, using a combination of an on-camera interview, 3D animation, 2D illustration and atmospheric footage to bring the excruciating hours of a needless tragedy to light. Through extensive interviews with eyewitnesses, the team reconstructed the moments leading up to the crash, the crash itself and the botched search and rescue effort.
The series also illuminated how the Navy’s reckless management of the 7th Fleet was measured not only in fatalities, but also in the hurt and shame of the rank-and-file sailors whom the Navy blamed and prosecuted for the accidents. The Navy’s prosecution of Navy Cmdr. Bryce Benson for what were clearly systemic shortcomings, traceable all the way to the Pentagon, left many of its own furious and demoralized.
Weeks after the first story’s publication, the House Armed Services Committee convened a panel to challenge senior Navy leaders over their claims that they had been fully truthful about its failings and its efforts at reform. The reporting forced the Navy to admit to Congress that its claims about its rate of progress on reform were misleading. In light of ProPublica’s reporting on the improper role that the Navy’s top commander played in the prosecution of Benson, one of captains on the USS Fitzgerald, the Navy dropped all criminal charges. U.S. and NATO Navy commands throughout the world have ordered sailors and officers to read the ProPublica accounts as part of training and education.
Joseph Sexton, Tracy Weber, Agnes Chang, Katie Campbell, Joe Singer, Kengo Tsutsumi, Ruth Baron, David Sleight, Sisi Wei, Claire Perlman, Joshua Hunt and Nate Schweber also contributed to this series.
“The Navy actively blocked reporting at every step, with communications officers attempting to dissuade officials from conducting interviews with ProPublica and leaking positive stories to competing media outlets in an attempt to front-run our stories,” ProPublica Managing Editor Robin Fields said. “The military even threatened that we could be criminally prosecuted for publishing the material we obtained. This tour de force of investigative journalism is a testament to the unflinching tenacity of the reporters and the innovation of ProPublica’s data, graphics, research and design teams. Their essential work laid bare the avoidance of responsibility by the military’s most senior leaders.”