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Parkland Shooting Coverage Earns Sun Sentinel Pulitzer Prize for Public Service

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The South Florida Sun Sentinel won the Pulitzer Prize for public service on Monday for its intensive followup coverage of last year's mass shooting that killed 17 at a high school in Parkland, Fla.

The Pulitzer Prize board awarded the top journalism prize "for exposing failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the deadly shooting rampage at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School."

Meanwhile, the Pulitzer board gave a special mention to the Eagle Eye, the student newspaper at Stoneman Douglas High, for its coverage of the shooting.

The Sun Sentinel's immediate coverage after the Feb. 14, 2018, shooting spree was cited as a finalist in the breaking news category (losing to the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette's coverage of the Oct. 27 mass shooting at a synagogue that killed 11 people). But it was the Fort Lauderdale-based newspaper's stories in the months after the school shooting that led to the public service prize.

The paper's 20 story submissions included "A lost and lonely killer," an examination of the shooter's troubled life published just over a week after the shootings; "Hide, deny, spin, threaten: How the school district tried to mask failures that led to Parkland shooting," published Nov. 30; and "Unprepared and overwhelmed," a Dec. 28 account of how educators and police in Parkland were unprepared for a mass shooter despite the lessons of Columbine High School in 1999 and Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012.

Other submissions included "What went wrong on the third floor in Parkland school shooting?" and "What went right on the second floor in Parkland?"

And yet another submission was from last August, "Judge blasts Sun-Sentinel for publishing confidential information about Parkland school shooting case." The story referred to a Broward County School District report about the shooter that was supposed to be substantially blacked out on the district's public website, but which the newspaper was able to read in full by copying and pasting into another file. A lawyer for the paper argued in court that the Sun-Sentinel violated no laws by publishing the information.

"It means so much to win the gold medal Pulitzer for public service because that's the spirit in which we approached our Parkland coverage," Sun Sentinel Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson said in a report in her newspaper. "We wanted our reporting to make a difference so that this never happens again."

Managing Editor Dana Banker said in the same report "This was the biggest and the saddest story our newsroom has ever covered. More than anything else, we wanted our work to serve the greater good. In a world where the next school shooting seems inevitable, we believed we had to do everything we could to expose what went wrong and the lessons to be learned."

In January, two parents of students slain at Stoneman Douglas High School wrote an open letter to the leadership of the Pulitzer Prizes, calling for the Sun Sentinel to be awarded the top prize for its coverage of the mass shooting.

"This was the most avoidable mass murder in American history, enabled by a sheriff's office and a school district characterized by administrative incompetence so staggering and moral corruption so deep that it took the Sun Sentinel the better part of the year the uncover it all," says the letter published Jan. 30 at the website Real Clear Education by Andrew Pollack and Ryan Petty. "But long after the national media moved on to the next controversy, local reporters here kept at it."

Dana Canedy, the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, told Education Week at the time that prize deliberations "are held in strict confidence in order to maintain the integrity of the judging process. And we let the prize selections speak for themselves."

Petty tweeted Monday, "Well deserved by the @SunSentinel team. Their coverage of the MSD tragedy went well beyond these hashtags. That's what great journalism is all about."

Canedy recognized the Eagle Eye student journalists at the outset of the announcement ceremony, noting that the newspaper had submitted the obituaries it had published of the 17 students and staff members killed in the shooting at Stoneman Douglas High.

"I want to break with tradition and offer my sincere admiration for an entry that did not win, but which should give us all hope for the future of journalism in this great democracy," Canedy said. "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."

There was one other education series cited as a finalist. The Philadelphia Inquirer was a finalist for local reporting for what the Pulitzer board said was "dogged scientific investigation and evocative storytelling that exposed toxic dangers lurking in Philadelphia school buildings that sickened children in their classrooms." 

The reporters on the series were Barbara Laker, Wendy Ruderman, Dylan Purcell, and Jessica Griffin. The winner of the local reporting category was the Advocate newspaper of Baton Rouge, La., for a series on discrimination in jury trials.

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