Analysis Shows Trends For Pulitzer Feature Stories
Moore, Jeanie McAdams
The authors’ examination of the 31 Pulitzer Prize features reveals several trends, including the focus of most stories on local or state topics and the frequency with which Christian references appear.
Despite its prestige, or perhaps because of it, the Pulitzer Prize has drawn criticism ranging from snide comments that the prize is merely a self-congratulatory industry beauty pageant to more serious attacks on the authenticity of the awards. Critics of the Pulitzer Prize tend to polarize between those who believe that the industry’s most prestigious prizes still reward “excellence in journalism,” as originally intended, and those who believe that the prizes have fallen into a game of favoritism and politics. While many journalists consider the Pulitzer to be the highest standard of journalistic excellence, it may be argued that few of them could pinpoint the characteristics of a Pulitzer-worthy story. There is ample literature addressing feature writing and Pulitzer Prizes separately, but not much information was available on Pulitzer Prizewinning feature stories. Books on the subject tended to praise the authors but contained limited critical analysis.
The following study represents an analysis of the first 25 years of Pulitzer Prize-winning feature stories, conducted to identify any patterns or trends. Although it is a relatively new category, we believe that the feature story has been part of the Pulitzer Prizes long enough to provide an adequate sample for study. It was hoped that this study would contribute to the understanding of journalistic excellence in general and Pulitzer quality in particular and would serve as a basis for related research.
In their separate books on the subject, Bates and Hohenberg covered the history of the Pulitzer and the selection process-the first from an outsider’s perspective and the second with an insider’s knowledge. In his book, Hohenberg, a longtime board member, criticized the awards for focusing exclusively on print journalism. In 1961, when NBC asked that television also be eligible for a Pulitzer Prize on the grounds that it was a form of journalism, Joseph Pulitzer, Jr., dismissed the idea because it was not in his grandfather’s will.1 Critics also have pointed out that juries are comprised of former winners and editors of larger newspapers. One might wonder about the objectivity of such a jury, concluding that its composition would create an incestuous environment in which the same large newspapers continue to win most of the prizes or that the jury members might be subjected to lobbying efforts because of their close connection to certain newspapers.
In the article, “In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes,” which was published in Editor and Publisher, two-time winner and board member Risser claimed that editors and authors resist the temptation to sway the jury or the board, probably because “they realize that lobbying or putting pressure on a board member is likely to be counterproductive.”2 Risser also defended the process against concerns that the largest, most prestigious papers take the majority of the prizes, pointing out that these papers are “prestigious and highly regarded for a reason.” In other words, the better newspapers are superior because they hire top-notch writers; of course, the best writers naturally want to work at the best papers, so the cycle feeds on itself, keeping the same newspapers on top. Finally, Risser implicitly defended the newspaper focus of the Pulitzers over other news media because of a newspaper’s “ability and resources to do reporting in depth, to explain, to investigate.”3
In his book, Bates suggested that the Pulitzers reflect the current tastes of American society, claiming:
Throughout the…history of the Pulitzer competition, it has served as an accurate mirror of mainstream American society and the press that serves it.4
If this is true, what is one to conclude about American society? A quick glance at any year’s list of winners across all of the categories for journalism compels the reader to notice a predominance of themes that revolve around human suffering. Pulitzer-winning columnist William Raspberry once criticized the media for catering to society’s need to hear about pain and violence, instead of putting more emphasis on the resolution of these problems.5
Felicity Barringer, writing for The New York Times, conceded after the 1998 winners were announced that the stories were well-written, but she identified the dominance of disaster themes as a sign that:
….the profession that prides itself on shrewdness, savvy, and dispassionate analysis (is) looking at itself with a downright romantic eye.6
She wrote that the prizes do not necessarily reflect reality because the real world was not one catastrophe after another, yet journalists tended to focus on the suffering in the world. Barringer quoted Benjamin Bradlee, former Washington Post editor and Pulitzer Prize winner, as saying, “We’re pro-disaster.”7 Bradlee’s statement certainly appeared to apply to the Pulitzer feature category. As noted earlier, a disproportionate majority of the headlines suggested stories revolve around a life-or-death struggle. Accompanying descriptions often included adjectives like “compelling,” gripping” and “moving,” words that are commonly used to describe popular works of fiction and what is called “literary non-fiction.”
Beyond an interesting twist and vivid imagery, compelling narrative requires strong character development, to draw the reader into the character’s world. One could certainly argue that all of the stories that focused on human subjects provided excellent character development. David Zucchino’s Pulitzer-winning “Being Black in South Africa” demonstrated how the feature article can be used to illustrate a complex situation, using engrossing imagery and detail to bring the reader into the story. In telling the story of a black South African caught in the midst of political tension that caused the death of the man’s son, Zucchino also exposed the black South Africans who took advantage of the system to rob other blacks. His story began with the following indirect quote and detailed imagery:
It was not done the proper way, the old man said. The burial of his son had been spoiled, and it pained him that his final memory of the young man was so stained by discontent. The damp dirt of his son’s grave stuck to the shoes of Joseph Nakedi. His clothes smelted of tear gas. His wife was weeping. He could hear the rumble of police armored vehicles along the dirt path outside his shack8
The growing popularity of the genre of literary non-fiction in the 1960s and 1970s was one of the main reasons that feature writing was introduced to the Pulitzers in 1978 and first awarded in 1979. In an article for Writer’s Digest, Jack Hart explained that the technique is actually a return to the pre-inverted pyramid style of journalism when reporters included many renowned literary artists. Hart proposed that when the Pulitzer Prize committee added a category for features, it might have been recognizing a return to the journalism practiced by Twain, Hemingway and Whitman.9 So how, exactly, does one distinguish literary nonfiction from ordinary news writing? As the term “literary” suggests, the piece should follow a story format: A story has a beginning, middle and end; well developed characters, with whom the reader may identify; action that rises and falls and reaches a climax. Other story attributes might include the use of dialogue and techniques like foreshadowing. Hart suggested that modern media, such as film and books-and now newspapers and magazines-still followed the basic Aristotelian model for storytelling. “Such stories vary in their content, of course,” Hart wrote:
Although the best ultimately deal with one of just a few fundamental themes. Most are, in some way, about striving for redemption. Lovers who try to overcome obstacles so that they can be together. Athletes who work to overcome obstacles to win. Human beings who strive to overcome obstacles to become happier, more complete, or in some way more fulfilled.11
The Pulitzer rules dictate that the award for feature writing should go to “a distinguished example of feature writing, giving prime considerations to high literary quality and originality.” Although judging “quality and originality” must be supremely subjective matter, a few people have attempted to explain what is meant by the terms. In a column in Editor & Publisher, David Sumner made a number of suggestions on how writers can improve their chances of winning contests; these guidelines also proved helpful in analyzing Pulitzer features. Sumner recommended that stories have a central theme that could be summed up in one sentence, introducing an element of suspense at the beginning, and following contest rules.11 In addition, he suggested writing a medium-length articles (2,000-3,000 words) whenever possible and contradicting conventional wisdom by seeking a plot that gives an unexpected twist to a familiar topic-for example, a sexual harassment story in which the victim is a man.12 Finally, Sumner suggests that readers should be left “feeling that the world isn’t such a bad place to live, after all.”13 For instance, Rick Bragg’s 1996 Pulitzer winner about Oseola McCarty, who donated $150,000 to a university, demonstrates the effectiveness of adding a twist. The twist in this instance was that the philanthropist was an 87-year-old, black laundrywoman.
McCarty spent almost nothing, living in her old family home, cutting the toes out to shoes if they did not fit right and binding her ragged Bible with Scotch tape to keep Corinthians from falling out.14
James Tankard and Laura Hendrickson wrote that readers found sentences that “show” to be more interesting and informative than sentences that “tell.” Tankard and Hendrickson devised six rules, based on the study, which should apply to winning feature stories, as well:
Be specific, use language that appeals to the senses, use quotes or dialogue, use figures of speech, write in terms of action or narrative and use strong verbs.15
Kathleen Hanson found that Pulitzer-winning stories were more “information rich,” both in diversity and quality of news sources. She concluded that the Pulitzers’ greater use of “independent research information channels” demonstrated a “greater initiative on the part of the reporter(s) in retrieving information from books, reports, documents and other printed materials.”16 According to Hanson, newspapers that were interested in winning prizes needed to give reporters a more flexible schedule and routine and use “information gathering techniques that currently fall outside routine daily news practice.”17
In his survey of Gulf Coast newspaper journalists and editors, Barrin Beasley made a case for using narrative, rather than the traditional inverted pyramid, to reverse the decline of newspaper readership. Beasley concluded that readers did not like the inverted pyramid; he demonstrated that the narrative came out on top in reader comprehension and preference.18 According to Beasley’s research, the respondents agreed that a story was appropriate material for a feature:
…if the subject ivas not a well-known person, if it was a crime or court story, and for some local government stories, so long as they did not deal with complex budget or financial information.19
Beasley also found that the subjects of this survey believed that readers wanted “information that was relevant to them personally, interested them, entertained them and was quick and easy to read.”20
Jon Franklin, the first winner of a Pulitzer for feature writing, wrote in an essay that only certain stories are appropriate subjects for a narrative. Writing long, he pointed out, did not mean simply stuffing the story with more facts-an early practice that Franklin described as akin to a ship’s log, in that the story was simply a boring list of data. In apparent contradiction to Beasley’s findings, Franklin referred to the budget as an example of how a longer story can be effective.
It could humanize and provide interesting, in-depth explanations for important processes, like budgets, that the average reader would otherwise never have a real chance to understand.21
Garlock argued that the winning stories:
are indeed sterling examples of literature, written by true storytellers who let the drama and action play out, understand the role of conflict and resolution in a narrative, and don’t hesitate to channel their passion and rage into the narrative, when appropriate.22
Hypotheses and Research Questions
Based on a preliminary review of the titles of winning stories, as well as the descriptions that often accompanied these titles on the Pulitzer Prize website, it was theorized that a significant majority of the stories would center on negative themes, such as crime, disaster and death.
Most winning entries would be from metropolitan, East Coast newspapers. In order to confirm these hypotheses and identify other patterns, a full sample of Pulitzer Prize-winning stories were analyzed for the following categories, which correspond to many of those found in previous studies of newspaper content, such as a 2001 study by the Readership Institute Media Management Center at Northwestern University from which most of the categories below are taken23:
Origin: In what newspaper was the winning entry published?
Geographic focus: Is the story local, state, regional, national or international?
Diversity: How is/are the central character(s) identified? (race, gender, age)
Theme: What is the story about? (The Readership Institute offers 26 possible categories.)
What unexpected trends that might emerged?
For the purpose of this study and because of logistical limitations, the stories were coded by the authors of this article; however, these observational findings could be used as a baseline for future research.
As noted, the primary point of this research was to identify patterns-some might say a “formula”-shared by the winning stories. Although some readers might not like the term “formula,” we used it in recognition of the fact that there has been significant criticism – as well as praise-of the awards. Pulitzer rules dictate that the award for feature writing should go to:
a distinguished example of feature writing, giving prime consideration to high literary quality and originality.24
If a close analysis revealed some sort of formulaic approach, it would be worth re-examining how and why the prizes are awarded. For example, headlines of Pulitzer-winning stories across the board indicated a strikingly disproportionate number of stories revolving around a life-or-death struggle. The accompanying description generally included words like “compelling,” gripping” and “moving.” An initial review of the headlines in the feature category seemed to indicate a similar trend.
A full sample of Pulitzer-winning feature stories, spanning a 25-year period, served as primary research material. In addition to the secondary sources cited throughout this paper, Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories, edited by David Garlock, proved an invaluable resource, as it included every winning feature story from 1979 until 1997, in verbatim. However, the book contained no real analysis, and it was deemed necessary to take what Garlock had collected and look deeper into the stories to discover what made them worthy of the Pulitzer, and, if possible, to construct a formula for winning the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. The remaining stories were found on the Pulitzer website, which includes full versions of winning entries from all categories.
The data for this article included 31 stories, since two winning entries (both from The New York Times) were comprised of multiple articles.
Origin: In what newspaper was the winning entry published?
There is a clear geographic pattern among winning publications, with the majority (16 winning publications) originating in Eastern, metropolitan areas. This trend follows population patterns for the U.S., in which there are a number of dense population centers along the East Coast, with fewer scattered throughout the country. As the U.S. population center continues to move west, it would be interesting to see if the balance of winning publications shifts to the West Coast, where the past four winning publications were based.
Geographic focus: Is the story local, national or international?
The vast majority of 22 stories focused on local topics, meaning community or state, with only seven stories on topics of national interest and just two international stories.
Diversity: How is/are the central character(s) identified?
In most stories, the central characters were clearly identifiable as male or female; for the stories whose subject was a thing rather than a person, gender was determined by who was quoted throughout the article. Over half the winning stories (18 stories) focused on a male character, six stories focused on a female character and seven stories had both male and female central characters.
Theme: What is the story about?
It is the observation of these authors that the themes of a significant number of winning stories would make an ordinary reader feel negative emotions, such as sadness or outrage, rather than on positive emotions that would uplift or encourage the reader. However, this observation is not based on a study with multiple readers, and should only be used as a reference for future analysis. Stories were classified by thematic categories tested by the Readership Institute in “Newspaper Content: What makes readers more satisfied.” In addition to the categories listed in the content study, we identified an additional category, which we defined as “general hardship.” Seven stories fell under two categories. Eleven stories were about ordinary people, five of which were cross-categorized as general hardship. Crime was a close second, with nine stories dedicated to this theme, followed closely by health, with seven wins. Three stories focused on an accident or disaster, two on technology and one on the federal government. During the analysis of themes, it appeared that a significant number of winning stories involved a death by murder or illness. A second review indicated that 10 of the 31 winning stories-nearly one in three-involved a death.
An unexpected finding during this research was a decidedly pro-Christian thread in the winning articles, either in the use of religious references or in the use of direct quotations from the main characters. Nineteen stories made at least one clear reference to Christianity, and three more used quotes that could be used to infer that the character was Christian. Eight stories did not include any religious reference, and just one story, “Death of a Playmate,” mentioned any religion other than Christianity; the murderous boyfriend was known as the “Jewish Pimp.”
Conclusions and Implications
The Pulitzer rules dictate that the award for feature writing should go to “a distinguished example of feature writing, giving prime consideration to high literary quality and originality.” Although judging “quality and originality” must be a supremely subjective matter, a few people have attempted to explain what was meant by the terms. As noted earlier, a disproportionate majority of the headlines suggested stories that revolve around a life-or-death struggle. Accompanying descriptions often included adjectives like “compelling,” gripping” and “moving,” words that are commonly used to describe popular works of fiction. This study focused narrowly on Pulitzer-winning feature stories for the purpose of identifying common elements among stories in this category, and, if possible, distinguish any trends. While there may not be a “formula” per se, several strong trends were identified, and it is hoped that the conclusions that were drawn will provide the basis of further research on a broader level, in order to determine whether the trends uncovered during this study apply across all Pulitzer categories.
Of note was the fact that only two stories dealt with a subject that looked beyond America’s own borders; this tendency may be because international stories have a separate category or because American newspaper readers simply are not interested in the rest of the world. Barringer mentioned the paucity of international stories among Pulitzer articles, although she noted that photojournalists have had great success in afflicted areas of the world, such as Africa and Latin America.25
Among the most interesting findings was the frequency with which Christian references appeared, while other religions were almost completely absent. It seemed that Christianity often served as a reader’s guide to right and wrong. Nowhere was this more evident than in the 1998 winner, “Angels and Demons.” A copy editor may have written the headline, but the blatant Christian reference would not have been used if the story wouldn’t support it. This particular headline told the reader to expect a battle between good and evil, with clearly defined heroes and villains. Because angels are a Christian symbol, the reader could further conclude that the “demons” or the amoral antagonist are unChristian-in deed or fact. Christianity was used consistently as a tool for pointing out “good” forces.
If the Pulitzers are indeed an accurate mirror of mainstream America, one could draw several conclusions about the average American from this study. For instance, one might be led to think that the majority of Americans understand the concept of “right” and “wrong” through Christian metaphor. Or, perhaps it is just that Christian symbolism has become inextricably woven into the fabric of American metaphor and has become an easy means of painting a picture without requiring the audience to think too hard. Thus, although the stories are highly readable and beautifully written, readers learned nothing new; accepted values and plots are simply recycled because they confirm the readers’ own views and beliefs. Using this as a benchmark study, we believe that there are a number of directions that future research could take, including a cross-category analysis of the Pulitzer Prizes, or an analysis of how Americans view themselves, compared to how the media view Americans. While the results of this research may seem overly critical, it is necessary to review processes and traditions that are taken for granted, such as the Pulitzer Prizes, not only in order to maintain the integrity of the process in question, but also to ensure its relevance in the future.
1. John Hohenberg, The Pulitzer Diaries: Inside America’s Greatest Prize (Syracuse, N. Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1998), 104-105.
2. M.L. Stein, “In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes,” Editor & Publisher, 25 February 1995, p. 13-15.
3. Stein, “In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes,” 13-15.
4. Stein, “In Defense of the Pulitzer Prizes,” 14.
5. Emily Martin, ” Pulitzer Prize winner blasts media,” The Chronicle Online 16 Nov. 1995.
6. Felicity Barringer,” Looking through Pulitzer-colored glasses: Disasters and crime reign supreme,” The New York Times, 20 April 1998, sect. D., p. 7.
7. Barringer, “Looking through Pulitzer-colored glasses.”
8. David Zucchino, “Being Black in South Africa. In Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories, edited by David Garlock. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1998. First published in Philadelphia Inquirer, 11 December 1998.
9. Jack Hart, “Stories in the News,” Writers Digest, September 1995, p. 29-34.
10. Hart, “Stories in the News,” 32.
11. David Sumner, “A Few Tips on How to do Well in Writing Contests,” Editor & Publisher, 6 July 1996, p. 48.
12. Sumner, “A Few Tips on How to do Well in Writing Contests.”
13. Sumner, “A Few Tips on How to do Well in Writing Contests.”
14. Rick Bragg, “All She Has, $150,000, is Going to a University.” In Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories, edited by David Garlock. Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1998. First published in The New York Times, 13 August 1995.
15. James Tankard and Laura Hendrickson, “Specificity, Imagery in Writing: Testing the effects of ‘Show, Don’t Tell, ” Newspaper Research Journal, 17, no. 1-2 (winter/spring 1996): 35-39.
16. Kathleen A. Hansen, “Information Richness and Newspaper Pulitzer Prizes,” Journalism Quarterly, 67, no. 4 (winter 1990): 934.
17. James Tankard and Laura Hendrickson, “Specificity, Imagery in Writing: Testing the effects” 35.
18. Berrin Beasley, “Journalists’ Attitudes Toward Narrative Writing,” Newspaper Research Journal 19, no. 1 (winter 1998): 78-90.
19. Beasley, Journalists’ Attitudes Toward Narrative Writing,” 78-90.
20. Beasley, Journalists’ Attitudes Toward Narrative Writing,” 80.
21. Jon Franklin, “When to Go Long,” American Journalism Review, December 1996, 36-40.
22. Pulitzer Prize Feature Stories, ed., David Garlock (Ames: Iowa State University Pres): p. x.
23. Readership Institute Media Management Center at Northwestern University,” Newspaper Content: What makes readers more satisfied,” (June 2001).
24. “The Pulitizer Prize History,” Pulitzer.org, (November, 1998).
25. Barringer, “Looking through Pulitzer-colored glasses.”
Lamb is an associate professor in the Department of Communication at the College of Charleston and Moore is a master’s student at American University and a senior writer for the Direct Impact Company.
Copyright Newspaper Research Journal, Department of Journalism, University of Memphis Winter 2005
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