Gritty South Florida Sun-Sentinel Earned Every Inch of Its Pulitzer

By BRAD SLAGER For Sunshine State News

Pure emotion: The newsroom, as the announcement is made

Pure emotion: The newsroom, as the announcement is made

Journalists and writers are a curious lot, with relationships between publications and outlets ranging from collegial to confrontational. Personalities and competition frequently bring out contention, but sometimes a story is just so important, and a community just so affected, that all you can do is stand and applaud those who accomplish. 

Last year the South Florida Sun-Sentinel did more than good work — it was needed work, and the newspaper has earned journalism’s top and most coveted honor as a result: The Pulitzer Prize.

Annually, the Columbia University School of Journalism hands out honors for specific meritorious media work, via the Pulitzer. With a variety of categories honoring reporting and writing, the Gold Medal for Public Service is considered the top prize, granted to a news organization for work over the prior year. The Sun-Sentinel received the Gold Medal for its yearlong coverage of the Parkland high school shooting, and for the various bizarre and disturbing storylines that occurred in the aftermath.

In addition, the Eagle Eye staff, the reporters of the Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School newspaper, won a special mention for their “momentous” achievement for student journalism. “These budding journalists remind us of the media’s unwavering commitment to bearing witness, even in the most wrenching of circumstances, in service to a nation whose very existence depends on a free and dedicated press,” Pulitzer Prize Administrator Dana Canedy said. “There is hope in their example.”

But, to make myself as clear as I can, the Gold Medal — the Sun-Sentinel’s prize — is the most prestigious Pulitzer given, period. That makes it the best of the best.

True, the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas was inherently dramatic. On Valentine’s Day 2018, a gunman opened fire at MSDHS, killing 17 students and staff and injuring 17 others. Witnesses identified the shooter as Nikolas Cruz, a 19-year-old who had been expelled as a student. 

But the broader story in the local community was far more subtle, hidden deep within layers and caught up in machinations that seemingly allowed for the tragedy even to take place. Local officials’ high degrees of culpability for the massacre were gradually exposed, and thankfully the staff at the Sun-Sentinel remained dogged in pursuing the alarming details.

The Pulitzer committee recognized the lengthy body of work, citing nearly two dozen pieces, stretching from the day of the shooting to Dec. 30. Like many others, I covered a number of details, both here in Sunshine State News and for other outlets regarding the various Broward County authorities and the parts they played in the shooting. We all had the drive to see to it our community did all it could to learn, to try to keep another day like this from ever happening again. But the work of the staff at the Sun-Sentinel went above and beyond. It was the things the community wanted and needed to know. It was exemplary and impressive. Sorely needed by all of us in Broward.

Last December Sunshine State News Executive Editor Nancy Smith lent her praise to the local paper, noting the work S-S reporters had done to ferret out one of the ugly backstories to the shooting. “What impressed me is the Sun-Sentinel didn’t wait for The New York Times to send down an investigative team to find out what’s really going on — something the Times increasingly has to do on big stories, as state newspapers obey an instinct to protect local favorites and corporate special interests,” Nancy wrote.

That was the case all of last year. Much of the Parkland aftermath had the heft of a national story, and the paper carried that load. Whether it was the inactivity of deposed Sheriff Scott Israel’s deputies, the lax attention paid to numerous calls to law enforcement concerning the future shooter, to the flawed programs within the Broward County school system, there was a need to delve much deeper. The paper battled the School Board to have crucial documents of the shooting investigation released. 

That episode, playing out last March, led to the School Board asking a judge to arrest the story’s reporters and hold them in contempt.  At one point when the redacted documents were eventually released in a digital document, the Sun-Sentinel learned the redactions were revealed when transferred to another format. It was announced the board would sue over the revelations, and the paper responded to the threat by countering the board in court.

“I call this good, old-fashioned journalism from the legacy days I remember,” Nancy Smith concluded in her December column. “A masterful piece of writing and reporting skill that shows the will of reporters and a brave newspaper to pry open the door of public access. …”

Amen to that. 

Throughout 2018 the bulldog Sun-Sentinel never retracted its teeth. The collective efforts of its staff and editors were a public service the community desperately needed to grieve and heal and understand how such despair could befall them. The honor the Pulitzer committee granted to the paper was well earned, that’s really all I can say. I stand and applaud.

Brad Slager, a Fort Lauderdale freelance writer, wrote this story exclusively for Sunshine State News. He writes on politics and the entertainment industry and his stories appear in such publications as RedState and The Federalist.