What The Salt Lake Tribune's Pulitzer Win Can Teach Us About The Paradox Of Great Journalism
For Utah State University professor Matthew LaPlante, the Salt Lake Tribune’s Pulitzer win was especially close to home. His former colleagues had won a Pulitzer for taking down one of his students. He wrote a column for the Herald Journal about his experience. UPR’s Katherine Taylor spoke with him about what inspired him to write it.
(Taylor) So tell me about the moment that you found out that your former colleagues had won a Pulitzer for taking down one of your students, because I imagine it must have been kind of a mix of emotions in that moment.
(LaPlante) I don’t know if it was a mix of emotions. It was just like this pure unbridled excitement. But here’s what happened: I was giving a presentation to the department of plant soils and climate at the moment the awards were being announced. Everybody kind of knew. The Tribune had just been racking up these different awards and there was just nobody who had done anything as locally powerful as what the Tribune had done. So they had just started announcing the awards and the department chair said, “Okay Matthew, it’s your turn to speak.” And I had to like, turn, I had to shut the computer and so I’m sitting there and I’m like, shaking, I was so excited! And as soon as my presentation was over I ran downstairs to my office. I flipped open my computer and, sure enough, people were already tweeting that the Salt Lake Tribune had won a Pulitzer Prize! And among the team that did this (it’s a staff award so it’s for a whole bunch of people), but really importantly to me among the people who did it was my old editor at the Salt Lake Tribune, Sheila McCann, who was the best editor I’d ever had in my life, and could ever hope to have, and I was just, I was so excited for her.
(Taylor) So how did you feel about the other aspect of this story then?
(LaPlante) That mix of emotions, actually, has played out over the last year. At the moment the Pulitzer was announced, it was announced for the work they had done. I had already come to terms at that point with the fact that the work they had done included some really amazingly excellent reporting about Utah State University, and the Logan police, and a collective, I don’t even know if i want to call it a failure, but a collective missing of the fact that there was a student on campus that many women had accused of sexual assault. And that student was one of my students. I first heard about that from the student. I first heard about that from Torrey Green. He had called me for advice on how to talk to a reporter because she had called him asking about these accusations. I was floored.
(Taylor) You mention in the piece you wrote for the Herald Journal that he had become one of your favorite students, that he was an optimist and hard worker. I always kind of wondered how you reconcile those two sides of him that you had come to see.
(LaPlante) I don’t think you do. I don’t think you can reconcile that. I think that you can accept the fact that not every body is one way and that we all are not what we appear to be. That we’re all putting on faces and personalities and trying to show the world that we’re something that we’re not, or we’re not sure that we are. Or something that we’d like to be that we’re not yet. So I can’t and I won’t, and I don’t think I’ll ever be able to reconcile that student that I know with what I have learned over the course of last year of reporting from the Salt Lake Tribune and from others as well.
(Taylor) I think in the column you capture this idea really well, that journalism can show you these things that are hard to know and that it can be terrible, but it can also be, you know, award-winning. It can be sort of terrible and wonderful at the same time.
(LaPlante) It can be and it should be terrible and wonderful at the same time. The best journalism should make us really uncomfortable. The best journalism should make us question our preconceived notions about the world. What the Tribune did in that part of its reporting — it won the Pulitzer for a variety of stories about USU but also about another university in the state — and the part that touched me upset me. It made me question my assumptions about my students, and the way my campus works, and the way this community where I teach works and operates and supports sexual assault victims. That is exactly what it’s supposed to do.