The Pulitzer board, which administers the journalism awards named after newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer, has changed the terms of submission to require digital entries only, and has also changed the description of the “breaking news” category to stress that real-time reporting will be the main criteria for that award. That has led some — including the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard — to speculate we could see a Pulitzer Prize for live-tweeting of the news. Whether that ever comes to pass or not, there’s a case to be made that Twitter is the best tool for breaking news that the world of journalism has seen in a long time.
Although the Pulitzer board didn’t say why it made the changes to the criteria for the breaking-news award, it may have done so in part because the award went without a winner in 2011 — although there were three finalists nominated by the judges, including the Chicago Tribune and the Miami Herald, none were chosen.
Reporting that captures news “as quickly as possible”
The old version of the criteria said the award would be given “with special emphasis on the speed and accuracy of the initial coverage, using any available journalistic tool, including text reporting, videos, databases, multimedia or interactive presentations or any combination of those formats, in print or online or both.” The new version of the criteria is substantially shorter, and doesn’t mention anything about the format that it is supposed to appear in or what kinds of tools the reporting should use. It simply refers to:
[R]eporting of breaking news that, as quickly as possible, captures events accurately as they occur, and, as times passes, illuminates, provides context and expands upon the initial coverage.
In a news release about the changes, the Pulitzer board also said it was moving away from looking at print submissions for the category because “it would be disappointing if an event occurred at 8 a.m. and the first item in an entry was drawn from the next day’s newspaper.” Although recent winners have included online elements, most have focused on news packages that appeared in print.
If reporting that occurs “as quickly as possible” is the main criteria, then I think Twitter definitely fits the bill — or is at least a leading contender. Videos uploaded to YouTube or streamed from a news event like the “Occupy Wall Street” protests (as my colleague Janko described in his recent post on videographers becoming citizen journalists) are also clearly real-time, but nothing matches the speed that is possible with 140-character text messages and links on Twitter, and videos and photos often spread this way as well.
An obvious candidate: NPR’s Andy Carvin
As for who has demonstrated the kind of reporting prowess on Twitter that might justify a Pulitzer, many of those who have followed the events of the “Arab Spring” through his Twitter stream would probably nominate National Public Radio editor Andy Carvin, who has turned the network into a kind of real-time newswire. Although many criticize Twitter for broadcasting un-verified information, Carvin has shown a rigorous approach to fact-checking and knowledge of the players involved can make it a reporting tool as good as — if not better than — any other we have known.
There are other good examples as well, including New York Times reporter Brian Stelter’s use of Twitter (and his Tumblr blog) to cover the tornado in Missouri earlier this year, which also gave readers a look behind the scenes at his reaction to the events he was witnessing — another thing Twitter excels at. Other reporters have also made use of the network while on the ground in Tahrir Square in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab World, as well as during the earthquake and subsequent tsunami in Japan earlier this year.
One of the things that might make Carvin and some of these other examples ineligible for a breaking-news Pulitzer is that the criteria specifically mentions “local reporting,” which means posting to Twitter about events in Egypt might not fit the bill — although some of the reporting that news organizations have done using Storify and other tools during the Occupy protests might qualify (Carvin also works for a broadcast organization, and the Pulitzer’s have historically been given only to newspapers).
If nothing else, the Pulitzer board seems to have upped the ante for newspapers and other traditional media outlets who want to compete for the breaking-news award: If you’re planning to just publish something the next day — or even post traditional stories to your website — and you’re not thinking about video or Twitter or Storify or some combination of those tools to cover the event, you can kiss your Pulitzer goodbye.