This year the Polk is the first major contest to be announced, launching the 2021 award season for work published the previous year. It likely signals what’s ahead in many contests: Almost half the Polk awards went to projects about the Covid pandemic. Many others went to coverage of the George Floyd killing and other police shootings.
The full list of award winners is worth reviewing as a reminder of the richness of the journalism that was produced in one of the most challenging news years in America. You can read interviews and annotations of four of the winners, which were featured on Storyboard during the past year. These are the judges’ comments, with hyperlinks to the Storyboard interviews:
Ed Yong of the Atlantic has won the Science Reporting award for his clear and insightful analysis of factors behind the spread of Covid-19 and failed efforts to bring it under control. Yong’s March 25 account, “How the Pandemic Will End,” correctly predicted its inordinately severe impact in the U.S., a circumstance his August 4 story, “How the Pandemic Defeated America,” explained in devastating detail.”
- Storyboard focused on the deep reporting process that allows Yong to write authoritative stories that weaves complex and colliding systems into compelling and credible narratives.
Eli Saslow of the Washington Post has been recognized in a first-time category, Oral History, for “Voices from the Pandemic,” 25 compelling personal narratives he crafted based on extensive interviews with individuals deeply affected by the virus. Saslow chose each to represent a segment of the American populace coping with grief, fear, guilt, bitterness, frustration, tension, dejection and other emotions, relating their stories in their own words while keeping his role invisible to the reader.
- Storyboard spoke with Saslow, who is one of the country’s most masterful intimacy reporters, about what he learned from a year of interviewing by phone and letting go of his own writing voice.
The award for Magazine Reporting goes to Katie Engelhart of the California Sunday Magazine for “What Happened in Room 10?” Focusing on one room in the Life Care Center of Kirkland, Washington, scene of the nation’s first deadly Covid-19 outbreak, which led to 46 deaths, Engelhart’s seamless 17,000-word narrative was at once riveting storytelling and a deft analysis of what went so wrong in nursing homes across the country.
- The Storyboard annotation of Engelhart’s story, which was all done remotely, demonstrates how deeply sensitive personal stories can be woven with tough questions about system failures.
“George Floyd’s America,” a six-part series by a team of Washington Post reporters illustrating how uncanny a match Floyd’s life and death were for the national movement he came to symbolize, has won the award for Justice Reporting. Based on more than 150 interviews, the Post series detailed how entrenched poverty, structural racism, inferior education, police intimidation and a rigged criminal justice system dogged Floyd’s life from beginning to end.