After our Pulitzer win, reflections on why we do what we do | Editorial

If you want to preserve democracy as we know it, you have to have a free, and many times adversarial, press.” — John McCain

It was surprising to watch the tears flow Monday when it was announced that the South Florida Sun Sentinel had won the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service, the most prestigious of the 14 Pulitzer prizes.

After all, the Sun Sentinel had won this honor in 2013 for a remarkable series of stories by Sally Kestin and John Maines about off-duty police officers who would drive their cruisers at 100, 120 or even 130 miles per hour. As a result of those stories, one officer was fired, some lost their take-home cars and more communities began using our methods — including Sun Pass tolls — to monitor how cops drive their take-home cars

But this time felt different. This time, the entry was a newsroom-wide mix of breaking news, investigative reports, photo storytelling, interactive journalism (with video and audio recordings) and editorials.

A former school administrator, with input from the district’s public information office, wrote a letter to the Pulitzer Board, asking that the Sun Sentinel’s work not be honored. The letter accused us of being biased, unethical and racist. She said we refused to correct misinformation, failed to give voice to those who believe Superintendent Robert Runcie is doing an excellent job and prolonged the suffering of the families of the shooting victims.

As an example of unbalanced coverage, she noted our failure to follow up on a January press release that said “hard corners” — where students can hide out of sight from someone peering from the hallway — had been marked off at Stoneman Douglas over Christmas break. Perhaps we should have written about this safety feature having been added 10 months after the shooting. But what about the other 285 schools?

In writing and editing hundreds of articles, we’re not saying our coverage has never missed a step. But we quickly corrected errors pointed out and/or gave the district the opportunity to set the record straight.

Still, you can understand why relations are strained. Our reporting laid bare how the school district failed to deal with a violent, mentally disturbed student who became a mass murderer. We exposed a culture of leniency that every year wiped the slate clean for students with behavior problems. We revealed that inaccurate school crime reporting presented a false picture of safety from Miami to the Panhandle.

And despite endless promises of transparency, we reported that the district refused to release any public records pertaining to Stoneman Douglas for months after the shooting, hired a crisis-management expert whose motto was “stop talking” and tried to get our reporters thrown in jail.

“News is what someone wants suppressed. Everything else is advertising.” — a number of famous newspapermen and women, including Katharine Graham, Washington Post publisher

We’ve got to believe that because of the light we have shined and will continue to shine, our school system will be stronger in the long term, with people better trained to handle the threat of active shooters.

We’ve got to believe law enforcement will be better trained to respond to active shooters.

But as of now, we can only hope our community mental health system will do more to prevent troubled kids from becoming active shooters.

It is our belief that Florida’s liberal gun laws and lack of funding for mental health care is a deadly mix.

And it’s an indictment of federal gun laws that the Pulitzer board this year commended the reporting of mass shootings in three cities — Parkland, Pittsburgh and Annapolis.

Of the many congratulatory messages we received after Monday’s announcement, two haunt us.

“Thank you … for uncovering the truth behind Alex’s murder. You have made us safer,” wrote Max Schachter, whose 14-year-old son died on the first floor of the 1200 building.

Thank you, Max, but do you really think we’re safer? We believe another school shooting could happen again tomorrow.

And from Vickie Stanley, a former colleague in Tampa: “There’s not a day I don’t drop Nick off at school and don’t think about Parkland. Literally every time he steps out of the car, I think about those parents whose last moment with their child was that moment.”

Vickie, you speak for parents everywhere, who fear that when they drop their kid off at school, it could be for the last time.

A deep-seated fear about school and gun safety, not the light we shine, is what keeps our community from healing.

For the sake of the kids — and for those whose voices have been silenced — we will continue to follow the story of Stoneman Douglas.

Editorials are the opinion of the Sun Sentinel Editorial Board and written by one of its members or a designee. The Editorial Board consists of Editorial Page Editor Rosemary O’Hara, Sergio Bustos and Editor-in-Chief Julie Anderson.