BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize Friday for a series of innovative articles that used satellite imagery, 3D architectural models and daring face-to-face interviews to expose China’s vast infrastructure for detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslims in the Xinjiang region. The Pulitzer Prize is journalism’s highest accolade and marks the digital outlet’s first win since its founding in 2012.
And BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Journalists’ FinCEN Files series, the largest investigative reporting project ever to expose corruption in the global banking industry, was honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A former US Treasury Officer was sentenced to prison last week for leaking the thousands of secret government documents that served as its origin.
The Xinjiang series won in the International Reporting category and was recognized as a finalist in the Explanatory Reporting category, and the FinCEN Files was recognized as a finalist in the International Reporting category. BuzzFeed News was a Pulitzer finalist twice before.
Pulitzer Prizes were also awarded to the Minneapolis Star Tribune for their coverage of the police murder of George Floyd and its aftermath. Darnella Frazier, the teen who shot the viral video of Floyd’s death, received a special mention from the Pulitzer Prizes. The Boston Globe won for investigative reporting that exposed systemic failures by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers. Ed Yong of the Atlantic won the Explanatory Reporting award for his pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic. He shared the award with a team of Reuters reporters for their investigation of how “qualified immunity” protects police who use excessive force from prosecution.
The Pulitzer for Local Reporting took to the Tampa Bay Times for revealing a sheriff’s covert intelligence operation to profile schoolchildren, while staffs at The Marshall Project, Alabama Media Group, The Indianapolis Star and the Invisible Institute opened the National Reporting category. won for their years of researching K-9 units and the damage police dogs do to Americans. The New York Times won the Public Service Reporting Pulitzer for its “courageous, farsighted and sweeping coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequality, government failure in the US and beyond.”
In 2017, not long after China began detaining thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, BuzzFeed News reporter Megha Rajagopalan was the first to visit an internment camp — at a time when China denied that such places existed.
“In response, the government tried to silence her, revoke her visa and expel her from the country,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its submission for the award. “It would cut off access to the entire region for most westerners and disabled journalists. Releasing basic facts about inmates slowed down to a trickle.”
Rajagopalan worked from London and refused to be silenced. He collaborated with two collaborators, Alison Killing, a licensed architect who specializes in forensic analysis of architecture and satellite imagery of buildings, and Christo Buschek, a programmer who builds tools tailored for data journalists.
“The flaming Xinjiang stories shed much-needed light on one of the worst human rights violations of our time,” said BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs. “I am immensely proud of Megha – who was expelled from China yet found ways to tell this critical story – as well as Alison and Christo for their courageous and harrowing investigation, a leading example of innovative forensic analysis and creative reporting.”
Minutes after she won, Rajagopalan told BuzzFeed News that she didn’t even attend the ceremony live because she didn’t expect to win. She only found out when Schoofs called to congratulate her on the win.
“I am in complete shock, I was not expecting this,” Rajagopalan said over the phone from London.
She said she was deeply grateful to the teams of people who have worked with her, including her collaborators, Killing and Buschek, her editor Alex Campbell, the BuzzFeed News public relations team, and the organizations that funded their work, including the Pulitzer Center.
Rajagopalan also recognized the courage of the sources who spoke to them, despite the risk and threat of retaliation against them and their families.
“I’m so thankful they stood up and were willing to talk to us,” she said. “It takes so much incredible courage to do that.”
The three set out to analyze thousands of satellite images of the Xinjiang region, an area larger than Alaska, to answer a simple question: Where were Chinese officials holding as many as 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities?
For months, the trio compared censored Chinese images to uncensored mapping software. They started with a huge dataset of 50,000 locations. Buschek built a custom tool to browse those images. Then, “the team had to go through thousands of images one by one and verify many of the sites against other available evidence,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its award entry.
They eventually identified more than 260 structures that resemble fortified detention camps. Some of the sites could accommodate more than 10,000 people, and many contained factories where prisoners were forced into labour.
The groundbreaking technological reporting was also accompanied by extensive old-fashioned ‘shoe leather’ journalism.
Rajagopalan was barred from China and instead traveled to neighboring Kazakhstan, a country known for its own authoritarian impulses, where many Chinese Muslims have sought refuge. There, Rajagopalan found more than two dozen people who had been imprisoned in the Xinjiang camps, gaining their trust and convincing them to share their nightmarish stories with the world.
An article took readers to one of the camps, which was described in unprecedented, vivid detail from the survivors’ stories and then, thanks to Killing’s architectural skills, turned into a 3D model.
“During her coverage, Rajagopalan faced harassment from the Chinese government, which did not force her to pack her Beijing apartment at short notice,” the entry read. At one point, “the Chinese government posted its personal information, including a government identification number, on Twitter.”
Ultimately, the series of four stories painted a devastating and detailed portrait of China’s horrific detention and treatment of its Muslim citizens, who were labeled genocide and a crime against humanity by major Western countries.
BuzzFeed News’ second honor went to FinCEN Files, named a finalist in the International Reporting category.
In that series, billed as the largest reporting project in history, more than 100 news organizations in 88 countries collaborated on a series of stories over 16 months.
It all started in 2017 when BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold got a huge cache of classified US government documents from a source. The documents contain more than 2,100 reports of suspicious activity, or SARs, which are top-secret documents submitted by banks to warn the government of possible criminal activity. Few have ever been seen by the public.
In partnership with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed News and collaborating editors searched the documents, whose narrative sections were 3 million words long — 14 times the length of the novel. Moby Dick. Then they checked everything three times for facts. The process took more than a year.
In addition, reporters conducted hundreds of interviews around the world, obtained piles of internal banking information and thousands of pages of public records, filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and several lawsuits in public records.
The investigation revealed, among other things, how five giants of the global banking industry – JPMorgan, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon – benefited from fees from shady transactions involving drug smugglers and terrorists.
The worldwide response to the stories uncovering the deluge of black money has been profound. The FinCEN files were credited with giving a final push for the successful adoption of sweeping anti-money laundering legislation in the US. Lawmakers from the UK to the EU to Thailand to Liberia have also launched their own investigations.
“The FinCEN Files,” Schoofs said, “lifted financial reporting to new heights. Jason received an unprecedented treasure trove of classified government documents from a brave source, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who was recently sentenced to prison for providing them. Starting with Those priceless documents, a monumental reporting effort around the world revealed how big banks took advantage of black money flowing through their accounts, while the US government watched but rarely took action.
Last week, former Treasury Department official Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison for leaking the highly confidential bank documents to Leopold. Edwards — a former senior advisor with the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN — was not accused of leaking the documents that served as the basis for the FinCEN Files series, but she admitted after her conviction that she had done this.
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs, who himself won a Pulitzer for international coverage in 2000, wrote an op-ed for the New York Times on Thursday, calling on President Joe Biden to pardon Edwards in recognition of the massive corruption that her actions are bringing to the fore. brought light. .
The 11 current and former BuzzFeed News reporters honored by the Pulitzer Committee for the FinCEN series were Leopold, Anthony Cormier, John Templon, Tom Warren, Jeremy Singer-Vine, Scott Pham, Richard Holmes, Azee Ghorayshi, Michael Sallah , Tanya Kozyreva and Emma Loop.
BuzzFeed News has previously been listed as a Pulitzer finalist. In 2018, the outlet was a finalist in international reporting for a series of stories linking more than a dozen deaths in the US and UK to a targeted Kremlin assassination program. A year earlier, BuzzFeed News was honored as a finalist in the same category for a study that revealed how large companies are using a powerful dispute resolution process to bend countries to their will.