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Pulitzer Prize Profile: The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Public Service Award

April 16, 2012 at 12:00 AM EDT
Announced Monday by Columbia University, The Philadelphia Inquirer won the Pulitzer Prize for public service for its "Assault on Learning" series that chronicled pervasive under-reported violence in the city's public schools. Jeffrey Brown and The Inquirer's Kristen Graham discuss the award and the series' impact on the city.
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JEFFREY BROWN: Finally tonight, the 2011 Pulitzer Prizes were announced this afternoon.

Among the winners in the arts, for music, Kevin Puts and his work “Silent Night, Opera in Two Acts’; for history, Manning Marable for his book “Malcolm X: A life of Reinvention.” Marable died in April of last year; and for biography, John Lewis Gaddis for his book “George F. Kennan: An American Life.”

Very unusually, there was no winner in the fiction category.

Among the journalism awards: David Wood of The Huffington Post won for national reporting. He chronicled the struggles of wounded war veterans when they return home. And the Public Service Award went to a team at The Philadelphia Inquirer that investigated pervasive violence in the city’s schools.

And we’re joined by one of the members of that team of reporters, Kristen Graham.

Kristen, first, congratulations.

KRISTEN GRAHAM, The Philadelphia Inquirer: Thank you very much.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, set the scene a little bit for us. How did you and your colleagues first get on to this story?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, we decided to do the story after an incident at a Philadelphia high school in December of 2009 when a group of Asian immigrant students were severely beaten. It was a racially motivated beating.

And the school district response really was very lukewarm at first. And advocates throughout the city were sort of saying, how could this happen? And we decided that we were going to devote resources into looking into a pervasive culture of violence in the Philadelphia School District.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, when you say pervasive culture of violence, tell us a little bit about that means. What kind of violence are we talking about, what ages of the students? What were you seeing?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, in some cases, students as young as elementary school, even kindergartners, were both victims of violence and committing violent acts.

We really saw a lot of violence at the high school level. In one particularly disturbing case, there was a group of students who went basically from room to rooms looking for their victim. And this happened in plain sight. Teachers, principals all allowed it to happen. We also found widespread under-reporting throughout the system.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that, I gather, was an important piece of this, the unreported element of it. Why was that going on? I mean, was this about keeping the numbers down, or what did you find?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: In many cases, it was about keeping the numbers down.

There’s really a disincentive. When we did the series, it was up to school officials to report their own violence. And, obviously, it didn’t reflect well on them if they showed violence. And so we found that many officials were just not reporting incidents, that the district simply never found out about it. No one was ever punished.

So it was really quite an issue in many schools.

JEFFREY BROWN: And that includes the teachers not reporting anything in some cases. . .

KRISTEN GRAHAM: It was the responsibility of the administrators to report the violence. And now, since the series, that’s changed. It’s up to school police to report.

JEFFREY BROWN: So then the question became, I’m sure, for your readers whether authorities at all levels were doing enough to stop the violence.

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Absolutely. Absolutely.

And we heard from many readers and, you know, certainly most poignantly from victims of violence that they felt enough wasn’t being done. There’s a new administration in the School District of Philadelphia. And they’ve taken a more serious approach to school violence. They have come out with some different regulations. And so they say they’re taking it more seriously than their predecessors.

JEFFREY BROWN: Well, that — I noted the Pulitzer citation said that your team’s reporting — quote — “brought reform and improved safety for students and teachers.”

So, tell us a little bit about how that happens. You do a series. It sparks debate and controversy in the city. And what happens? What happened in your case?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, in our case, shortly after — a few months after the series came out, there was a new administration in Philadelphia. And so the new school reform commission — they’re the governing body of the School District of Philadelphia — came in and put in some reforms.

The district had put in reforms after the series came out as well, so it was really kind of in parts. It didn’t happen immediately, but it’s happened incrementally. And we hear anecdotally that things are improving.

JEFFREY BROWN: Now, how much goes into a series like this in terms of resources, in terms of your time? Give us a little sense of the process of the reporting.

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Well, we were five reporters who were on the series for more than a year, which is a huge investment of time.

And some of us were on it for the entire time. I cover the Philadelphia School District. It’s my beat. And so, for a long time, I would do my daily stories and work on the series, you know, kind of in my spare time. But it really was a huge commitment on the paper’s part. And we’re particularly proud that it is a staff award, because we really feel like it was, you know, the whole staff that made this happen.

JEFFREY BROWN: I can’t help but note, of course, that it happens at a time when your paper, of course, lots of papers are going through economic hard times. Your paper has had — has had several round — many rounds of layoffs.

The paper’s parent company was recently sold. So that’s the kind of larger context for your work.

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Absolutely.

It was a great day in the newsroom. And, you know, we really felt like it focused the spotlight on the fact that not just my colleagues and I who worked on the series, but everyone at The Inquirer is doing really good work. And, you know, we really feel like public service journalism is, you know, what we’re in business to do. And, you know, it was a great day.

JEFFREY BROWN: Is there follow-up reporting going on to this or other stories in the school?

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah.

As I said, I cover the school district and have been writing about cheating in the Philadelphia School District and also certainly following violence as well. So it’s something that we have got our eye on very closely.

JEFFREY BROWN: All right, Kristen Graham of The Philadelphia Inquirer, part of the team that won the Pulitzer Prize this year for Public Service, thanks so much. And, again, congratulations.

KRISTEN GRAHAM: Thank you so much.

JEFFREY BROWN: In the past year, we’ve profiled the work of several other of the newly named Pulitzer winners. Those include Matt Apuzzo of the Associated Press for investigative reporting on the New York Police Department’s clandestine spying of Muslim communities, Sara Ganim of The Patriot-News for her reporting in Harrisburg on the Penn State scandal, New York Times correspondent Jeffrey Gettleman, who covers Africa, and poet Tracy Smith, who won for her book “Life on Mars.”

We’ve collected those interviews online. And you can find a link to them all on our home page.