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Pulitzer Prize panel in Long Beach focuses on journalism's extraordinary battles

AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALDPulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, left, talks to fellow panelist Stan Tiner, former editor of the Sun Herald, before the start of a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer on Thursday at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. Several Pulitzer winners from the state were present for the panel.
AMANDA McCOY/SUN HERALDPulitzer Prize winner Natasha Trethewey, left, talks to fellow panelist Stan Tiner, former editor of the Sun Herald, before the start of a program commemorating the 100th anniversary of the Pulitzer on Thursday at the University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus in Long Beach. Several Pulitzer winners from the state were present for the panel. SUN HERALD

LONG BEACH -- The University of Southern Mississippi Gulf Park campus hosted a panel discussion Thursday about the Pulitzer Prize, journalism's most prestigious award.

The discussion was part of a national initiative by the Pulitzer Board to commemorate the 100-year anniversary of the award. The Mississippi Humanities Council organized the panel.

The session, "The Pulitzer Prize in Mississippi: Responding to Natural Disasters," featured Charlie Mitchell, professor of journalism at the University of Mississippi and former editor of the Vicksburg Post, which won the 1954 Pulitzer for its coverage of a devastating tornado; Stan Tiner, former executive editor of the Sun Herald, which won the 2006 Pulitzer for its coverage of Hurricane Katrina; and Gulfport native Natasha Tretheway, winner of the 2007 Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and 2012-14 U.S. poet laureate.

Moderator of the discussion was Charles Overby, former director of the Newseum in Washington and former executive editor of the Clarion-Ledger, which won the 1983 Pulitzer for its coverage of education reform.

"The Pulitzer Prizers are understated in terms of how they're presented," Overby said. "They (The Pulitzer Board) never do anything that has a lot of publicity to it. Now they're finally doing something."

The panelists focused part of their discussion on the type of work that warrants a Pulitzer. A common narrative, Overby said, was the continuous delivery of information when doing so proved extremely difficult.

"Extraordinary coverage of natural disasters tends to show up in the best Pulitzer Prizes," he said.

Mitchell said the Vicksburg Post's coverage of the 1953 tornado was particularly trying as journalists took criticism for taking photos and gathering information while residents remained trapped underneath rubble.

The reporters eventually found themselves serving dual roles -- gathering news and assisting the rescue efforts.

"There was no easy way to put out a newspaper in the wake of a tornado," Mitchell said.

Similar difficulties arose for the Sun Herald during Katrina as its staff suffered alongside the people who became the news. Nonetheless, the newspaper never missed a day of coverage.

"Getting the paper out, we thought, was really important," Tiner said. "We had one satellite phone, and we began gathering the news as soon as the storm had passed."

The paper's circulation doubled from 40,000 before the storm to 80,000 in the weeks after and it was distributed for free, Tiner said.

"People would see the paper come out and say, 'Here's something that's working in the midst of all this devastation,'" he said.

"We saw the good that was being done -- that it really was important."

Tretheway, whose poem "Theories of Time and Space" depicted the ways people change after being away from home a long time, resonated among Katrina survivors.

"In August 2005, that poem went from being very figurative to absolutely literal," she said.

Tretheway went through a period after the storm when she thought she couldn't write about her home again amid the devastation, but she discovered her "silence spoke too loud," she said.

"If a difficult place makes you, if it forges you in a smithy, one can say, 'It can't be that bad,'" she said. "And I think that's true."

The Pulitzer Prize, Mitchell said, represents a much-larger dimension of public service.

"It's about keeping faith in the trust that people have in us as communicators," he said.

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