Introducing the Pulitzer Project

Using FOIA to reconstruct and update prize-winning investigative reporting

Written by Todd Feathers
Edited by Shawn Musgrave

In conjunction with the announcement today of the 2014 Pulitzer Prize winners, MuckRock is launching a project to recreate, expand upon and check back in on past Pulitzer winners in the investigative reporting category using public records requests.

We chose five winning stories and fired off a range of requests based upon them.

In some cases, the requests are designed to retrace the steps the lauded reporter or reporting team might have taken to break open a story and collect documents central to the investigation.

Several requests are aimed at investigating the same issue a reporter identified in years past, but in a different agency or location in 2014.

The last category of document requests seek to bear out whether a given Pulitzer winner brought about any real change in policymaking or government action.

Here are the stories we chose:

“Blacks, Hispanics big losers in cash seizures,” by Steve Berry and Jeff Brazil of the Orlando Sentinel (1993 winner).

Berry and Brazil documented a culture of racial profiling by the Volusia County Sheriff’s Department by tracking the disproportionate rate at which sheriff’s deputies seized money from black and Hispanic motorists.

In an effort to replicate the Sentinel investigation, MuckRock filed requests with the sheriffs’ offices in Los Angeles County, Calif., Orange County, Calif., Jefferson Parish, La., and Alamance County, N.C.

The Department of Justice has investigated all four sheriffs’ offices with regard to civil rights abuses. The DOJ has also audited the Los Angelesand Jefferson Parish departments’ asset forfeiture practices.

After asking the departments for receipts of asset seizures with little success, we also filed requests for:

“Scrapping ships, sacrificing men,” by Will Englund and Gary Cohn of the Baltimore Sun (1998 winner).

The companies charged with dismantling the Navy’s decommissioned ships often exposed their workers to dangerous, and sometimes lethal, working conditions, Englund and Cohn found.

Sixteen years after the Sun’s investigation, we want to see whether the shipbreaking industry had changed its ways.

We filed requests for:

“New FDA: How a new policy led to seven deadly drugs,” by David Willman of the Los Angeles Times (2001 winner).

A push by the Food and Drug Administration to expedite the approval of drugs by working more closely with pharmaceutical companies backfired, leading to the approval of seven deadly drugs, Willman found.

We filed a request, which was completed, for letters from the FDA to drug companies notifying them that approval of their drugs had been withdrawn.

The letters we received in response were vague and all of them indicated the drug company had requested the withdrawal of approval.

We filed a follow up request for letters from drug companies to the FDA requesting withdrawal of approval in the hopes they would contain an explanation.

“Not until a boy died,” by Patricia Callahan of the Chicago Tribune (2008 winner).

After complaints about children ingesting magnets that fell out of a popular toy, the Consumer Product Safety Commission botched the recall of Magnetix. It didn’t help that companies exert great power in the process of product recalls, Callahan found.

We wanted to see if the CPSC had changed its approach to recalls, track the time it takes for CPSC to recall a product and gauge the influence of companies in the process.

We filed requests for:

“The informer, the cop and the conspiracy,” by Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman of the Philadelphia Daily News (2010 winner).

Laker and Ruderman exposed a corrupt narcotics squad that bribed informants, lied about their tips and falsified search warrants, among other corrupt acts.

A police directive issued as a result of the story granted Philadelphia’s chief integrity officer oversight and review authority over the police departments confidential informants and search warrants.

We requested any reports the chief integrity’s officer has compiled on CIs or search warrants since the Daily News story to see how the new system is holding up.

Look for updates over the next few months as MuckRock uses freedom of information requests to reconstruct and update these landmark investigations.


Image via Pulitzer.org