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Making Sense of the Pulitzer Prize

Apr 21, 2014

Credit pulitzer.org

The Pulitzer Prizes honoring excellence in journalism were handed out last week --  including the Public Service award to The Washington Post and The Guardian for their coverage of the Edward Snowden and the N.S.A. documents he leaked.

Some pundits said that was a signal from Pulitzer that what Snowden did was a public service, even though leaking those documents was a crime for which he is still a fugitive from the law.

"Yeah, but the journalism he contributed to was pretty significant journalism and I think the Pulitzer Board want to acknowledge that," said Kelly McBride of the Poynter Institute's "Sense-Making Project."

And this kind of situation is not unprecedented for the Pulitzer Prize.

"This journalism is comparable to the 1972 Pulitzer Prize which was awarded to the Pentagon Papers and The New York Times for that piece of journalism," McBride explained. "That was equally as controversial and back then the Pulitzer board actually issued a letter that said something like, "Hey we're not so sure about this but it was good journalism."  I think you fast forward 40 years and this Pulitzer jury was convinced that this journalism will go down in history as significant."

So why no such letter from Pulitzer in the Snowden case?

"I think the committee is fairly confidant that the reporters who handled the Snowden information were not guilty of any crimes," McBride said. "So, they're not worried about any illegality. Although people have suggested that by receiving stolen information you're guilty of a crime."