When the Pulitzer Prizes were established in 1917, pioneering investigative journalist Ida B. Wells was 25 years into her groundbreaking career defined by exposing racism and white supremacist violence against Black people. The year it was established, she published a definitive account of the racist riots in East St. Louis, Illinois; in 1920, she published an account of the racist riots in Elaine, Arkansas. Both were otherwise widely ignored by the press and covered up by the government; neither was acknowledged by the Pulitzer committee, which honored Harold Littledale for his series of articles in 1917 about abuses in a New Jersey state prison, and Louis Seibold for his 1920 interview with President Woodrow Wilson.
“The way to right wrongs,” Wells told an audience in October 1892, “is to turn the light of truth upon them.”
In fact, it wasn’t until 1977 that the Pulitzer committee honored a Black journalist for written reporting at all: Acel Moore of the “Philadelphia Inquirer” shared the award that year with his colleague Wendall Rawls for their reporting on the conditions at the Fairview State Hospital. (Moneta Sleet, Ovie Carter and Matthew Lewis had previously won for their news photography — in 1969 and 1975.)
Wells herself was honored posthumously with a Pulitzer Prize special citation in 2020, a small addition to the 32 Black journalists who have been honored with regular Pulitzers in more than 100 years.
This year’s Pulitzer committee added to their number, in a way, by acknowledging Darnella Frazier, 18, of Minneapolis, Minnesota, with a special citation for doing the courageous: filming the police misconduct that resulted in the murder of 46-year-old George Floyd in May 2020. (She will receive a $15,000 cash award that comes with the prize.)
Frazier, who was 17 at the time, filmed then-Officer Derek Chauvin’s knee on Floyd’s neck — we later learned during the trial — for over nine agonizing minutes. Had Frazier not recognized the urgent need to document and share on social media the wrong being done in plain sight, Minneapolis and the world would not have known — or been explicitly clear on — what had transpired that day. In the days and weeks after millions watched Frazier’s video record, protests erupted nationwide and swelled around the globe in solidarity with the movement for Black lives.
“It wasn’t right. He was suffering. He was in pain,” Frazier said in her testimony during the Chauvin trial. “I knew it was wrong. We all knew it was wrong.”
Frazier’s Pulitzer Prize is significant because, in more than a century, the board has never recognized an act of journalism conducted without the imprimatur of a newsroom, even as citizen journalists and citizen journalism has moved in to fill the vacuum left as local newsrooms have been gutted by the dueling economic pressures of venture capitalists seeking to maximize profits and tech companies’ takeover of the ad market and the monopolization of revenue.
The recognition that what Frazier did is an act of journalism also underscores the crucial relationship between an engaged and informed public and the so-called gatekeepers in journalism — whose gates are rapidly disintegrating — and their ability to access and collect vital information to aid in providing clarity and accountability in reporting. That she had the tools to self-publish her video — much as Wells self-published some of her monographs — made her more than just a witness.
But without witnesses like Frazier who were willing to speak up against the system, investigative journalism (especially at the local level) would always have been nearly impossible. Reading through Wells’ own work more than a century later, it was the courageousness of the people who spoke to her that allowed her to expose the racist corruption behind America’s lynching epidemic.
Still, it should not go without remark that a child had to witness and publish proof of a modern-day lynching for the gatekeepers to recognize the value and import of citizen journalism.
Floyd’s case could easily have been another story in which abuse and injustice were overlooked because the “official report” had been transmitted from the police to the nation’s majority white newsrooms — and thereon to a credulous public — at face value. In many instances, newsrooms’ overreliance on the police narrative in local or crime reporting short-circuits meaningful public scrutiny of police conduct, confusing and even obfuscating the public’s (and the potential jury pool’s) perception of events.
So another byproduct of Frazier’s video is that it forced journalists and newsrooms to re-evaluate how they report on the police in their communities, and deal with the whiteness in their own operations.
Frazier’s citation, though, is particularly poignant at a moment when white support for the Black Lives Matter movement has dropped significantly: In June 2020, support for Black Lives Matter reached 67 percent according to Pew, but fell to 55 percent by September 2020. A USA Today/Ipsos poll in June 2020 placed that support at 60 percent, but showed it at 50 percent in May 2021.
Frazier has made few public comments outside of the courtroom about her actions but posted a statement on Instagram on the anniversary of Floyd’s death: “A lot of people call me a hero even though I don’t see myself as one. I was just in the right place at the right time.” She added, “Behind this smile, behind these awards, behind the publicity, I’m a girl trying to heal from something I am reminded of every day.”
Frazier’s grace and humility show the burden that comes with bearing witness: She is seen as a hero but must simultaneously wrestle with the fact that there was nothing more she could have done for Floyd other than bearing that witness. The Pulitzer placed both the enormity of her actions and their impact in a bittersweet context: She embodied the core tenets of journalism — of Ida B. Wells’ kind of journalism — when she had the presence of mind to document what she saw, no matter how horrific.