The Accidental Pulitzer Prize-winning Journalist
By Emer Mullins
The best journalism has always been based on excellent storytelling – the objective reporting of facts best told through the story of a person with whom others can relate. As social media has become ubiquitous and infotainment replaced news, as celebrity culture and fake news have become so prevalent, people struggle to verify what they read and trust the source. Journalism has been reduced to the art of misinformation on too many occasions.
That’s why it’s so heartening to see an extremely talented young Irish journalist (who comes from a long line of Irish storytellers) win a Pulitzer Prize with the New York Times Visual Investigations Unit in May.
Malachy Browne, from Broadford, Co Limerick, nephew to the legendary Irish investigative journalist Vincent Browne, is something of an accidental journalist, having studied engineering and working as a computer programmer before joining his uncle’s current affairs magazine, Village, to learn on the job. Vincent Browne traded in excellence. Patricia Harty, my mentor and friend, and co-founder and editor of Irish America Magazine where I was privileged to work in the 1990s, was not easily impressed but was like a star-struck teenager when she and I met the inimitable journalist at a New York event.
Malachy didn’t initially aspire to be a writer but went on to work as a reporter and editor at Storyful and Reported.ly – two social journalism start-ups with a reputation for getting to the truth of a story through the use of social media. His combination of skills in forensic analysis and an engineer’s logic meant when the Visual Investigations Unit of the New York Times came calling in 2015, he was excited about the chance to drive a new form of journalism that combines traditional reporting with more advanced digital forensics to ensure accountability and transparency in how stories are reported.
The rest is Pulitzer prize-winning history. The visual investigations unit analyzed and translated tens of thousands of cockpit recordings chronicling bombings in Syria by Russian aircraft, showing that Russia had targeted four Syrian hospitals over 12 hours. It was part of the paper’s award for international reporting on how President Putin of Russia has used shadow warfare to undermine the West and restore Russia as a global power.
“With any of these investigations, it’s never one sort of ‘gotcha’ moment, it’s like layering evidence on top of itself when you’re building a case. You know, like a trial lawyer would in a very evidentiary way.” Malachy said.
Malachy told Jack Murray, CEO of MediaHQ, in a recent webinar that his work is founded in the idea that “there’s hard evidence out there that can cut through bullshit and lies and propaganda around certain events and find the truth, which is ultimately our mission.” The webinar, which
attracted a large audience interested in understanding how the VIU at the NYT does its work and the tools Malachy uses to carefully construct his stories as well as hearing about what drives this young crusader, is available here. Malachy presented his slides outlining the process and tools used to verify the information that exposed the Russians, among others. Along with friends, colleagues and interested members of the public Malachy’s parents joined the webinar, as their son spoke of his childhood in Broadford and the importance of small town Irish life in building community and spiking an interest in generational storytelling.
Winning a Pulitzer Prize during a global pandemic was a surreal experience for Malachy. While his wife, Siobhan, “was doing high kicks down the corridor” and Malachy called Limerick to tell his parents, the NYT was planning a virtual celebration as it couldn’t operate normal tradition, where the newsroom gathers on the iconic red stairs in The Times building to honour the nominees and winners.
So far Malachy’s ground-breaking work has seen him cover the Las Vegas mass shooting, chemical weapons attacks in Syria, extra-judicial military shootings in Nigeria, the Saudi officials who killed journalist Jamal Khashoggi in Turkey, and the killing of a young Palestinian medic along the Gaza-Israel border. These and other stories have received a George Polk Award, two News and Documentary Emmys, three Overseas Press Club of America Awards, an Investigative Reporters and Editors Award, a Pulitzer Prize (2020) and a Pulitzer finalist citation (2017).
So what’s next? “We’ve been doing good work and we were happy with the journalistic results we were getting irrespective of prizes. This is fantastic but the biggest thing for us was putting evidence out there. And that they (people) know there are watchdogs out there keeping an eye on human rights abusers and saying okay, we’ll find you out,” said Malachy.
A combination of crime scene investigation, forensic data analysis, digital sleuthing and storytelling. A winning combination. This is to fake news what the sun is to ice – it simply cannot stand up to this kind of heat. Congratulations Malachy Browne and the New York Times for working to restore public faith in journalism during an epidemic of fake news.
Emer Mullins is a public affairs specialist working in the non-profit sector. A former journalist she served as assistant editor at Irish America Magazine, and as a writer for the Irish Voice.