The Pulitzer Board announced Friday that ProPublica was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for public service, honoring the nonprofit newsroom’s accountability journalism on the coronavirus pandemic. The designation is ProPublica’s 13th Pulitzer finalist in 13 years of publishing. The 2021 public service Pulitzer was awarded to pandemic coverage by the New York Times.
The package of articles covered pressing problems of the pandemic, pinpointing how they occurred and who was responsible. Spanning from the earliest days of the coronavirus through its fallout seven months later, the body of work delivered critical information and prompted widespread impact.
ProPublica’s first coronavirus investigation, published Feb. 28, 2020, reported on grave missteps at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention that hampered officials’ ability to track and contain the virus’s spread in the United States. Reporters Caroline Chen, Marshall Allen, Lexi Churchill and Isaac Arnsdorf revealed that the CDC shunned World Health Organization test guidelines used by other countries, insisting on creating its own test. But when it was sent to labs across the country, the test didn’t work as expected — and it took weeks to figure out fixes. This loss of invaluable time, combined with almost systematic official inaction, put the country behind the rest of the world in responding to the coronavirus. Within days of ProPublica’s reporting, the House Oversight Committee announced an investigation into the test kits’ role in delaying the Trump administration’s response to the coronavirus.
ProPublica swiftly directed the expertise of its health care reporters toward stories that clearly explained COVID-19. Chen, who lived through SARS in Hong Kong and reported on the 2014 Ebola crisis, analyzed her key questions about the coronavirus, countering oversimplified headlines and misleading statistics with accurate, fact-based journalism. This was particularly crucial as a consistent stream of inaccurate information — much of it coming from the White House — flowed through the news cycle.
In a piece by Lizzie Presser, she let readers hear directly from a respiratory therapist who described in unflinching detail something he’d never seen before: 40- and 50-year-olds with mild or no underlying conditions drowning from the fluid flooding their lungs. It became ProPublica’s most-read story ever and shaped the public’s understanding of how the virus affected younger people.
To cut through the clutter of dashboards and charts, Lena Groeger and Ash Ngu set out to create a visualization that would allow people to see how their states were doing in relation to others and whether they were getting better or worse. They did so with arrows placed in a rough geographic arrangement, an innovative mapping technique known as a cartogram. This allowed people to see, at a glance, the way rates of COVID-19 across the country were moving.
As the pandemic deepened, a major story by Patricia Callahan, Sebastian Rotella, James Bandler and Kirsten Berg provided the most detailed look at how, since the beginning of the pandemic, the CDC had been silenced and hobbled through unprecedented political interference from the White House. The story also fully detailed for the first time the chain of mistakes and disputes that unfolded inside CDC labs, including a lab director sending faulty COVID-19 test kits to state and local public health labs even though his own staff’s quality checks showed they might not work. Less than six hours after ProPublica published this investigation, the CDC shut down the key lab implicated in the faulty tests. Several top scientists said they were unaware of the full extent of issues in the lab until the story ran.
A Focus on Vulnerable Populations
ProPublica was also one of the first news organizations to report on the racial disparities in COVID-19 illnesses and deaths. Astoundingly few agencies broke out COVID-19-related data by race, not even the CDC. An article by Akilah Johnson and Talia Buford focused on Milwaukee, one of the few places in the U.S. that was then tracking the racial breakdown of infections. They found that everyone who had died there up to that point in March was Black, offering a glimpse at the disproportionate destruction that the coronavirus is inflicting on Black communities nationwide. A week after the article was published, President Donald Trump and Dr. Anthony Fauci addressed the disparities for the first time at a White House news conference, with Trump pledging to release the data.
As agencies, under pressure, released more data and other outlets began to dig in, ProPublica stayed ahead of the coverage. Moving past the easy explanations often given for disparate outcomes in African Americans — that they were simply less healthy and that the causes were entrenched and nearly impossible to fix — ProPublica reporters emphasized that many deaths were avoidable, and that there were people who needed to be held accountable. This work included a piece by Johnson, Buford, Duaa Eldeib, Adriana Gallardo, Annie Waldman, Nina Martin and Tony Briscoe spotlighting stories of the first 100 people who died in Chicago, 70 of whom were Black, exposing the flaws in one-size-fits-all CDC guidance on when and how to seek care.
In New Orleans, when medical examiner data revealed that an unusual proportion of people died at home, Waldman and Joshua Kaplan learned that more than two dozen of them had sought care at the hospital first — and all were Black. They uncovered that the largest hospital chain in the area was sending infected patients home to die against the wishes of loved ones, to be cared for by those relatives without the proper protective equipment.
Michael Grabell, who had written extensively about the meatpacking industry, wondered what would become of the crowds of meat cutters he’d stood alongside. He teamed with Bernice Yeung to file 180 public records requests to state and local health departments, mayors’ and governors’ offices and agriculture departments across the country, asking for their real-time emails and text messages as the virus hit local plants. The resulting trove captured the panic and despair of local officials as sick workers overwhelmed them, plant managers ignored them and state officials failed them. Grabell and Yeung also discovered, buried in a public records request, that the U.S. Department of Agriculture had allowed the industry’s trade group to submit a draft of a presidential executive order that eventually helped meatpackers stay open despite an explosion of disease outbreaks in their plants. The reporting debunked the meatpacking industry’s narrative that the pandemic’s toll was unexpected and laid bare the unchecked power that allowed them to keep workers in harm’s way.
ProPublica also dedicated several articles to the impact of pandemic-related school closures and remote learning on students. Jodi S. Cohen reported on Grace (her middle name, used to protect her identity), a Black Michigan teen jailed for failing to complete online schoolwork. Within days of the story, co-published with the Detroit Free Press and Bridge Michigan, #FreeGrace became a trending hashtag. Protesters showed up outside the county courthouse where she was sentenced, and politicians — including Hillary Clinton and then-Sen. Kamala Harris — called for her release. Less than three weeks later, the Michigan Court of Appeals ordered Grace’s release, and soon after, her case was dismissed entirely. Grace’s school district also issued an apology and instituted a restorative justice program.
As the coronavirus raced through nursing homes and assisted living facilities across the country, many desperate family members found themselves unable to learn the truth about what was happening inside. In a collaboration with PBS Frontline, Joaquin Sapien, Katie Campbell and Joseph Singer told the story of a woman who rescued her father from an overwhelmed nursing home in Elmhurst, Queens, then the neighborhood with one of the highest concentrations of coronavirus cases in New York City. The story prompted the New York attorney general to investigate allegations that the nursing home failed to protect residents from the deadly coronavirus and misled families about its spread. It also prompted three residents to sue the facility in federal court over similar allegations.
Investigating the Pandemic Economy
ProPublica’s coverage of the virus and the ensuing economic crisis returned to another theme that the newsroom has long covered: corruption in politics and business. In March, Robert Faturechi and Derek Willis broke the story that Senate Intelligence Chairman Richard Burr sold off up to $1.7 million of stock after receiving early classified intelligence briefings on the serious health threats of COVID-19. Simultaneously, Burr was reassuring the public that the government was prepared to deal with the health crisis. A week after Burr sold his holdings, the stock market began a sharp decline. By May, FBI agents served a search warrant to Burr, which included the seizure of his cellphone, as part of an investigation of his stock trades. The next day, Burr resigned as chairman.
ProPublica also found that the federal government tossed aside its many rules on contracting to give out billions of dollars to just about anyone who said they could supply personal protective equipment. Unsurprisingly, an array of opportunists trying to make a fast buck from the country’s misfortune emerged. In one investigation by J. David McSwane, he reported that a vendor with no experience in providing medical supplies received $38 million in federal contracts to provide N95 masks at inflated prices to Department of Veterans Affairs hospitals. In the course of our reporting, McSwane asked the VA about this deal. It terminated the contract almost immediately and referred the case to the inspector general for investigation. The contractor, Robert Stewart Jr., pleaded guilty to three counts of making false statements, wire fraud and theft of government funds in U.S. District Court.
ProPublica’s journalism was not limited to jaw-dropping instances of waste and bad judgment. It also showed that the government’s procurement failures left hospitals without equipment to treat desperately ill patients and front-line workers without supplies to help keep them safe. This included an investigation by Callahan and Rotella showing how the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services had paid tens of millions of dollars for Royal Philips, a Dutch appliance and technology company, to develop low-cost ventilators that were never delivered. The reporters then exposed that the White House had struck a new deal to get the ventilators — but at four times the original price. These stories sparked a congressional investigation that led to a scathing report that found “evidence of fraud, waste, and abuse” in the deal the White House struck and to a broader probe of Trump trade adviser Peter Navarro, the point man on the deal. More importantly, the federal government terminated the Philips contract early, saving taxpayers more than $400 million.
As the federal government worked to relieve the economic ravages from the pandemic and shutdown, ProPublica honed in on the fact that the programs were grossly inequitable. Reporters Lydia DePillis, Justin Elliott and Paul Kiel found significant problems with the Paycheck Protection Program, the bailout for small businesses. In showing the contrast between a big Cleveland corporation that raised over $1 billion with help from the U.S. government and small local businesses that only got a few thousand bucks, the team illustrated the inequities in federal aid: help that went to large corporations and the wealthy was immediate, unconditional and indefinite, while help that went to small businesses and the vulnerable was slow, conditional and temporary.
The coverage was helmed by editors Alexandra Zayas, Tracy Weber, Charles Ornstein, Meg Marco, Jesse Eisinger, Marilyn Thompson, Louise Kiernan, Ken Schwencke, Scott Klein, Ryann Grochowski Jones and Ariana Tobin.
“ProPublica typically does long-term investigations on subjects covered by no one else. Not in 2020,” ProPublica Managing Editor Robin Fields said. “When confronted with a deadly pandemic that upended the economy, we unleashed nearly our entire newsroom on the unfolding crisis and met the moment with an urgency that broke our publishing records, busted our typical story forms and redefined how an investigative news outlet can serve the public.”