When I talk to high schoolers about the purpose of journalism, I usually highlight three ideals: to bear witness, to hold the powerful to account, and to center the voices and stories of individuals and groups who are least likely to be seen or heard.
Rarely do all three ideals come together so powerfully as they did in two investigative pieces published by Pulitzer Center partners in recent days.
Nick Turse’s story dateline is Somalia, where the U.S. has been waging a secret drone war against the militant group al-Shabab. A 2018 strike, carried out under relaxed rules of engagement approved by the Trump White House, killed two innocent civilians: a young mom, Luul, and her four-year-old daughter, Mariam.
An internal Pentagon investigation acknowledged the killings and the mistakes the strikers made but ultimately exonerated them. It also expressed doubt that the identities of the victims would ever be known.
“The U.S. government didn’t care enough to know who they killed, but I want readers to know this woman and this young girl (...),” Turse wrote to the Pulitzer Center earlier this year when he applied for a reporting grant to pursue the story. “I want to get the fullest picture possible of who Luul was. I want to paint a very intimate portrait—of her as a daughter, a wife, a mother. I want to do the same for her daughter. I want readers to know them as individuals cut down in the prime of their lives, not nameless, faceless victims.”
In his Intercept piece, “Civilian Harm,” Turse lays out in staggering detail the chain of mistakes, denial, and impunity that resulted in the killing of 22-year-old Luul Dahir Mohamed and her daughter, Mariam Shilow Muse. He also delivers on his promise of centering Luul and Mariam's young lives and terrible deaths with dignity and compassion. To date, their family has not received any compensation or apology from the U.S. government.
In their own riveting piece, Joshua Vaughn and Brittany Hailer investigated another system plagued by denial and impunity: U.S. jails. We learn that in Pennsylvania, at least 65 people died while in custody in 2022, but many of those deaths were never officially reported as required. Others, like Anthony Talotta's, were grossly misclassified (the doctor who treated him also had his medical license revoked or suspended in eight states). One man drowned in his cell.
Here again, the reporters put a face, a name, and a context to individuals who are otherwise invisible to the bureaucracies that are supposed to protect them. They also created the first database of deaths in Pennsylvania jails and wrote a comprehensive “how we did it" piece so that other reporters can replicate their methodology. Across the country, preventable deaths in jails and prisons are widespread.
No life is invisible, but many are made invisible. At the Pulitzer Center, we are committed to changing that through in-depth, nuanced, and sustained reporting in the darkest of places and in the public interest.
The Pulitzer Center is now a partner organization to the new Paris Charter on AI and Journalism, published November 10, 2023. The charter defines the ethics and principles that journalists, newsrooms, and media companies should apply to their work with artificial intelligence. Reporters Without Borders first commissioned the project, whose objective is to determine a set of fundamental ethical principles that protect the integrity of news and information in the age of artificial intelligence.
This message first appeared in the November 17, 2023, edition of the Pulitzer Center's weekly newsletter. Subscribe today.
Click here to read the full newsletter.