Reviews | Pulitzer quotes rely on superlative language

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If so, congratulations: you have won a Pulitzer Prize, journalism’s highest honor and an honor that awards $15,000, a free lunch, and perhaps the most underrated perk of all: a carefully edited quote, complete with plenty of adverbs and adjectives (read: strangers) , praising your work. This flowery language—an outburst of flattery you’d never dare utter—is sure to be quoted in Pulitzer’s media coverage, your speaker biography, and perhaps even your obituary.

Jennifer Senior, a writer at the Atlantic, won this year’s Pulitzer in the feature film category for a, well, let the Pulitzer folks describe it: , masterfully weaving the author’s personal connection to history with sensitive reporting that reveals the long reach of grief. Now that’s feature-style quote writing. Saul Pett of The Associated Press, if alive today, might envy Senior’s treatment, considering that his 1982 citation in the same category consisted of these seven words: “For an article describing federal bureaucracy.”

Reached by phone, Senior referred questions about the description to Atlantic editor Jeffrey Goldberg.

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“I think it does a good job,” Goldberg told the Erik Wemple blog. “It certainly means they read it.” The Atlantic has earned perhaps the highest accolade ever given to a birthday journalism piece, a category that veers into the predictable and the sentimental. “It’s a testament to the strength of Jen Senior’s writing and reporting that what could technically be classified as a birthday story won a Pulitzer.”

Pulitzer Prize administrator Marjorie Miller says people have a lot of options when it comes to reading material, a dynamic with implications for citations for both traditional journalism and book categories. “We want to make sure they’re really evocative and try as best we can to tell people what the book is about so they want to read the book or the journalism,” says Miller. There’s been a move to make quotes “stronger over time,” she noted.

A dip in the archives provides evidence in support of Miller’s point about change. The Post won the Public Service Award — which awards gold instead of silver — on Monday for “its compelling and vividly presented account of the assault on Washington on January 6, 2021, offering the audience a deep and unflinching understanding of one of the nation’s darkest days. (Resisting reporters don’t resist the Pulitzer chart.)

Compare this bloom with the Post’s 1973 Civil Service Award citation: “for his investigation of the Watergate affair.”

Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein have been robbed!

“It reflects an understated style that was prevalent at the time,” The Post’s Woodward, seemingly oblivious to the slight story, told blog Erik Wemple.

This understated style appeared in the “Telegraphic Reporting – National” category, which celebrated the work of Dewey L. Fleming of the Baltimore Sun, “For his distinguished reporting during the year 1943”.

However, full-throated endorsements are not an exclusively modern thing, as this 1933 quote for Associated Press reporter Francis A. Jamieson makes clear: the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son on March 1, 1932, from when the abduction was first announced until the baby’s body was found near the Lindbergh home on May 12.

Pulitzer juries — usually half a dozen journalists — sift through mountains of submissions to arrive at their nominations for finalists. Before entrusting their choices to the almighty Pulitzer board, they first tackle the quotes. Tone is a key factor. “Clearly you don’t want to exaggerate the case because that would go against the fundamental tenets of journalism, to tell the truth,” says Jeffrey Good, a veteran journalist who has worked on four Pulitzer juries. “In my experience, when we were effusive, effusiveness was warranted.”

Scrolling through Pulitzer’s archival quotes gives hints of journalistic sensitivities that have gone the way of the afternoon paper. The idea, for example, that newspapers orchestrate advocacy “campaigns” features prominently in Pulitzer’s early citations in the public service category. The Indianapolis News won this recognition in 1932 for “its successful campaign to eliminate waste in city management and reduce the tax levy”; the Whiteville News Reporter and the Tabor City Tribune of North Carolina won the same award in 1953 for “their successful campaign against the Ku Klux Klan, waged on their doorsteps at the risk of economic loss and personal danger, resulting in the conviction of over a hundred Klansmen and an end to terrorism in their communities.

These “campaign” references in public service citations remained robust through the 1960s, then disappeared (one in 1971 and one in 1983). Matthew Pressman, who has chronicled the currents of 20th century journalism in his book “On Press: The Liberal Values ​​That Shaped the News”, writes via email: “With increasing accusations of political bias against the news media from the late 1960s, journalists – and especially managers – of major newspapers did not want to be seen as ‘activists’ for anything.” (Pressman warned that he was unaware of the Pulitzer board’s justification for his diction.)

“[N]not a conscious stylistic change,” notes deputy administrator Edward Kliment, who points out that the “campaign” still occasionally appears in the “editorial writing” category. “It may have more to do with changes in the descriptions used by journalists.”

A heavier rotation of adverbs and adjectives in public service citations began in the 1990s. While the council was once content with credit reports that merely “looked at environmental threats and damage”, it has began promoting leather-based efforts such as a “detailed and unflinching examination of systematic problems within the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service” or a project that “consistently and comprehensively covered the tragic events [of Sept. 11]profiled the victims and followed the development of the story, locally and globally. »

That is to say, modern Pulitzer quotes might not survive the red pen of your Hemingway-loving high school English teacher.

“I’m a verb girl,” says Miller, who came to the Pulitzers from the linguistically unspoilt pastures of the Associated Press. Even so, Miller has no intention of altering the Pulitzer’s flowery quoting style. “I feel like it’s not broken,” she said. Which translates to: if you can’t abuse adverbs and adjectives to praise the best journalism in the country, when can do you abuse adverbs and adjectives?

Moreover, the thick pose enchants the people who produced the award-winning work. “We live in more emotional times. I think I prefer the effusive style of the descriptive slash,” says Goldberg.

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