Washington Post wins Pulitzer Prize for public service for Jan. 6 coverage

Washington Post photo by Bill O’Leary
A rioter’s face seen through the broken glass door of the House chamber as security agents point their weapons after a mob stormed the U.S. Capitol building on Jan. 6, 2021.

The Washington Post was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for public service on Monday for its coverage of the Jan. 6, 2021, insurrection at the U.S. Capitol and its aftermath.

The prize, considered American journalism’s highest honor, recognizes the work of more than 100 journalists across the Post’s newsroom, many of whom contributed reporting from the Capitol grounds that day as well as others who investigated the security failures that contributed to the crisis, the human costs of the attack and the larger ramifications for the nation.

“This was a seminal event in American history and democracy,” Washington Post executive editor Sally Buzbee said. She called it the Post’s “mission and our absolute sacred trust” to not just cover the crisis thoroughly but to find ways to get its reporting and analysis out “to as broad an audience as possible.”

“I’m enormously pleased and very honored that the whole breadth and sweep of the Post coverage is what was recognized,” she added, including the visual presentation that helped make the news especially vivid and comprehensible to consumers.

The Pulitzers also honored Post journalists as finalists in three other categories. Darryl Fears and other Washington Post national staffers are finalists in the national reporting category for a series of stories about environmental justice. Ann Telnaes is a finalist for the illustrated reporting and commentary category, formerly known as editorial cartooning. And Hannah Dreier and Andrew Ba Tran are finalists in investigative reporting for a series of stories about how the Federal Emergency Management Agency failed natural disaster survivors.

The New York Times won three Pulitzers Monday – for national reporting, international reporting and criticism – and was named a finalist in the breaking-news category for its reporting on the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol.

And five photographers for Getty Images – Win McNamee, Drew Angerer, Spencer Platt, Samuel Corum and Jon Cherry – won the Pulitzer for breaking-news photography for their coverage of the attack on the Capitol as well.

The Pulitzer Prize board also awarded a special citation in honor of journalists of Ukraine, “for their courage, endurance and commitment to truthful reporting during Vladimir Putin’s ruthless invasion of their country and his propaganda war in Russia.”

The Pulitzers’ gold medal prize for public service is considered the most prestigious of the more than a dozen journalism Pulitzers awarded every year. The Post has previously won the public service prize five times – first in 1973 for its coverage of the Watergate investigation and most recently in 2014, an award it shared with The Guardian for revelations about the National Security Agency’s global surveillance program.

This year, The Post was recognized for a nearly year-long collection of coverage that included breaking news stories, investigative reports, video reconstructions and an editorial published the night of Jan. 6 calling for President Donald Trump to be removed from office for his “refusal to accept his election defeat and his relentless incitement of his supporters” who attacked the Capitol that day. A centerpiece of the coverage was a three-part, 38,000-word investigative series, “The Attack,” that published in late October, intended to provide the definitive account of forces and failures that led to the Jan. 6 insurrection, the tumultuous events of the day and subsequent efforts by Trump allies to diminish the attack and promote the false narrative of a stolen election.

Martin Baron, who served as The Post’s executive editor for eight years before he retired in February 2021, called it “journalistic teamwork at its finest.”

“The skills of every department were deployed. And I couldn’t be more gratified that it is now being recognized with journalism’s highest honor,” he said via email. “It was a privilege to be part of such a remarkable newsroom, which rightly hasn’t let up in its investigation of who and what brought the United States to such a precarious point in its history.”

The Post’s package of coverage it had submitted for awards consideration dated back to three days before the attack. On Jan. 3, national political reporter Amy Gardner reported about a phone call Trump had with Georgia’s secretary of state, urging him to “find” enough additional votes to tip the state into his column – a shocking attempt to subvert the electoral process that in many ways foreshadowed what would happen at the Capitol.

The morning of Jan. 6, 2021, began with The Washington Post’s local news team fanning out across Washington to cover a “Stop the Steal” pro-Trump rally. The team – hardened by covering months of unrest during the 2020 racial justice protests as well as the crackdown on protesters and aggressive clearing of Lafayette Square that summer – were offered flak jackets and prepared for some tense encounters with the protesters, said Metro editor Mike Semel.

But sometime after 1 p.m., the journalists reported back to Semel: The crowd that had cheered Trump during his speech at the Ellipse had moved to the Capitol, where Congress was certifying Joe Biden’s presidential win, and were breaking down the barricades.

It quickly became clear that an unprecedented – and terrifying – event was unfolding in front of these reporters. But “nobody ran away from it,” Semel said. “There was bear gas being sprayed, they were looking for journalists to spit on and curse at. It was not a pleasant scene, and everybody ran toward it.”

The Washington Post’s main account of the day unflinchingly called what took place “an attempted coup.” A continuously updating live blog covering the mayhem carried 38 bylines that day. The Post broke a digital readership record on Jan. 6 for the number of readers visiting the website at the same time.

Days later, D.C. crime reporter Peter Hermann reported on how city police were left to battle the mob at the West Terrace entrance. The Post’s “visual forensics” team created a moment-by-moment video reconstruction of the chaos inside the Capitol. The Post also published stories chronicling the life and fatal shooting of one rioter and detailing how close the violent mob came to Vice President Mike Pence.

But by spring it became clear that Congress would not create a bipartisan commission to investigate what had transpired, as it had after the terrorist attacks of 2001. Matea Gold, now The Post’s national editor, recalled writing a note to colleagues expressing that it would be “a loss for the country” if there was no official accounting.

So The Post launched a months-long, investigative project for which 75 journalists across the newsroom combed through thousands of pages of official documents, interviewed hundreds of sources and examined countless videos and social media posts. The result was October’s three-part series, which included audio, video and extensive footnotes.

“This story is about much more than what happened in the halls of the Capitol that day,” Gold said. It was “a growing effort to sow doubt about our system of democracy. That is a story that demands all our resources to tell.”

Journalists working on the three-part series uncovered revelatory reporting up until the final moments before it was published, said managing editor Steven Ginsberg. “The more we learned, the more we understood how violent and dangerous it was,” he said. “It’s just critical for people to understand that and not look away, and appreciate what happened that day.”

Several editors acknowledged The Washington Post was unusually well-positioned to follow the story. While every other national news organization covered the insurrection, The Post – whose slogan is “Democracy Dies in Darkness” – also has a substantial reporting staff devoted to covering the District and surrounding region, including local events with national significance, contributing to an overall newsroom with resources and staffing few others can rival.

But “there’s a difference between being well-positioned and actually doing it well,” said senior managing editor Cameron Barr, who led the newsroom as interim executive editor before Buzbee’s appointment in May 2021. “We responded to the challenge in front of us, which was to cover this attempted coup with everything we had.”

More than a year since the attack, the country remains deeply polarized about what took place on Jan. 6 and whether it posed a serious threat to democracy. Extremists have used it as a rallying cry, and conservative media and a number of Republican politicians have downplayed the attack.

The lack of consensus “just underlines the importance of the role that we play as journalists and how essential it was for us to tell the story in the deepest and most authoritative way possible,” said Gold.

And while people can argue over the importance of Jan. 6, “there’s no substitute for bearing witness,” Semel said. Rioters beat officers with flagpoles, busted through windows of the Capitol and tried to break down doors to stop the transfer of power.

“We witnessed it with reporters’ words, photographers’ photographs, videographers’ videos,” Semel said. “You can interpret that any way you want, but we saw what we saw.”

Full list of Pulitzer Prize winners in journalism:

-Breaking news reporting: Miami Herald for coverage of the collapse of the Champlain Towers South condominium complex.

-Investigative reporting: Corey G. Johnson, Rebecca Woolington and Eli Murray of the Tampa Bay Times for reporting on hazardous conditions inside a Florida battery recycling plant.

-Explanatory reporting: Natalie Wolchover and other staff of the science and math publication Quanta Magazine for coverage of the build-out of the James Webb Space Telescope.

-Local reporting: Madison Hopkins of the Better Government Association and Cecilia Reyes of the Chicago Tribune for reporting on a history of failures in Chicago’s building and fire-safety code enforcement.

-National reporting: The New York Times staff for a sweeping project on fatal traffic stops by police.

-International reporting: The New York Times staff for reporting on U.S.-led airstrikes in Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan, including the civilian toll and how the reality contradicted official accounts.

-Feature writing: Jennifer Senior of The Atlantic for her piece that explored a family’s grief and reckoning with loss following the death of a loved one during the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

-Commentary: Melinda Henneberger of The Kansas City Star, who wrote about allegations of sexual assault by a retired police detective.

-Criticism: New York Times critic-at-large Salamishah Tillet for writing about Black stories, culture and art.

-Editorial Writing: The Houston Chronicle’s Lisa Falkenberg, Michael Lindenberger, Joe Holley and Luis Carrasco about voter suppression, voter-fraud myths and calls for reforms.

-Illustrated Reporting and Commentary: Insider’s Fahmida Azim, Anthony Del Col, Josh Adams and Walt Hickey for work about oppression of Uyghurs in China.

-Breaking news photography: Marcus Yam of the Los Angeles Times for his photos chronicling the U.S. withdrawal from Afghanistan; and Win McNamee, Drew Angerer, Spencer Platt, Samuel Corum and Jon Cherry of Getty Images for photos of the attack on the U.S. Capitol.

-Feature photography: Reuters photographers Adnan Abidi, Sanna Irshad Mattoo, Amit Dave and the late Danish Siddiqui for photography chronicling covid in India.

-Audio reporting: Futuro Media and PRX for a series entitled “Suave,” which followed a man who served more than three decades in prison re-entering society.

Full list of Pulitzer Prize winners in the arts:

-Fiction: “The Netanyahus,” by Joshua Cohen

-Drama:”Fat Ham,” by James Ijames

-History: “Covered with Night,” by Nicole Eustace; and “Cuba: An American History,” by Ada Ferrer

-Biography: “Chasing Me to My Grave: An Artist’s Memoir of the Jim Crow South,” by the late Winfred Rembert as told to Erin I. Kelly

-Poetry: “frank: sonnets,” by Diane Seuss

-General Nonfiction: “Invisible Child: Poverty, Survival & Hope in an American City,” by Andrea Elliott

-Music: “Voiceless Mass,” by Raven Chacon.