Late last year, the board that oversees the journalism prizes named after newspaper publisher Joseph Pulitzer changed the definition of its “breaking news” award to stress the real-time nature of the category. This led to speculation about whether someone who used Twitter as a reporting tool — the way that Andy Carvin of National Public Radio did during the Arab Spring revolutions in Egypt and elsewhere last year, for example — might be eligible for one. But a spokesman for the Pulitzer board said on Monday that he would not, because Twitter is not considered a news entity for the purposes of the prize. But should it be?
Just to recap, the Pulitzer board changed the “breaking news” award definition in what appeared to be an attempt to stress the real-time nature of the category (and also perhaps because there were no winners of the award in 2011). Instead of mentioning the use of various tools, as the previous definition did, the new version simply said that the award should be presented for a distinguished example of breaking news that:
[A]s quickly as possible, captures events accurately as they occur, and, as times passes, illuminates, provides context and expands upon the initial coverage.
Real-time news, but must be on a website
In discussing the changes, the Pulitzer board also said that “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.” As Justin Ellis of the Nieman Journalism Lab noted at the time, these changes seemed tailor made for a nomination that might include the use of Twitter — such as live-tweeting a breaking news event. Although the specific award is intended for what the board calls “local reporting,” I thought the same description could more or less cover what Andy Carvin did during the revolutions in Egypt.
But when I asked Sig Gissler — the administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes since 2002, and a faculty member at Columbia University’s graduate school of journalism — he replied via email that what Carvin did wouldn’t be eligible for a prize because:
[E]ntered material must appear on an eligible news site — meaning a site operated by a U.S. news organization that publishes at least weekly during the calendar year and that adheres to the highest journalistic principles.
Gissler also noted (as Carvin himself did in a response on Twitter after the changes to the breaking-news award description) that Pulitzer prizes are typically only awarded to newspapers, not broadcast entities such as National Public Radio. But the main point seemed to be that reporting a news event using Twitter wouldn’t be enough to qualify unless that reporting appeared on — or was associated with — a “U.S. news organization that publishes at least weekly… and adheres to the highest journalistic principles.”
Journalism no longer occurs only in newspapers
Obviously, the Pulitzer board is entitled to award its prizes in whatever way it sees fit. But will it be overlooking some potentially game-changing and arguably historic examples of breaking news journalism if it sticks to that definition? I think so. Whether Carvin fits the traditional definition of a journalist or not, the reporting that he did around Egypt using only a Twitter account — and tools such as Storify for collecting that reporting — comes pretty close. Some have criticized his work as being just aggregation, but the reality is that Carvin verified and reported and did all of the other things that journalists do.
In effect, Carvin did all of the same things that the BBC does with its “user-generated content” desk, which tries to filter, verify and then report what comes in via Twitter and other social tools like Flickr and YouTube — but he did it single-handedly. Should he be penalized for that, or watch some other outlet get credit for embedding his Twitter stream on their newspaper website? Should Brian Stelter of the New York Times get more credit simply because his Twitter coverage of the tornado in Missouri happened to be associated with a newspaper, even though it appeared on his Twitter account and his Tumblr blog?
Like many other traditional journalistic institutions, the Pulitzer board is eventually going to have to come to grips with the fact that journalism is becoming a much more elusive concept than it used to be — not only is it no longer confined to the simple boxes labelled “newspaper” or “broadcast,” but some of those engaging in it don’t fit the traditional labels either. That doesn’t mean they aren’t committing acts of journalism, just that our vocabulary hasn’t kept up with the changes in the industry.