BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize on Friday for a series of innovative articles that used satellite imagery, 3D architectural models and daring in-person interviews to expose China’s vast infrastructure for incarcerating hundreds of thousands of Muslims in its Xinjiang region. The Pulitzer Prize is the highest accolade in journalism and the digital outlet’s first win since it was founded in 2012.
And the FinCEN Files series from BuzzFeed News and the International Consortium of Journalists, the largest investigative reporting project of all time to uncover corruption in the global banking sector, was named a Pulitzer Prize finalist. A former US Treasury Officer was sentenced to jail just last week for leaked thousands of classified government documents that served as a genesis story.
The Xinjiang series won in the International Coverage Category and was recognized as a finalist in the Explanatory Reporting Category, and the FinCEN files were recognized as a finalist in the International Coverage Category. BuzzFeed News has been a two-time Pulitzer finalist.
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 filmed the viral video of Floyd’s death, received a special award from the Pulitzer Awards. The Boston Globe won for its investigative coverage of systemic failures by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers. Ed Yong of the Atlantic won the Explanatory Reporting Prize for his contributions to the COVID-19 pandemic. He shared the award with a team of Reuters reporters for their investigation into how “qualified immunity” shields police officers who use excessive force.
The Pulitzer for local reporting went to the Tampa Bay Times for exposing a sheriff’s secret intelligence operation to profile schoolchildren while the Marshall Project, Alabama Media Group, Indianapolis Star, and Invisible Institute staff took the National Reporting category for their year of investigation into K-9 units and the damage police dogs do to Americans. The New York Times won Public Service Reporting Pulitzer for “courageous, predictive, and comprehensive coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequalities, government failures 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 a detention center – at a time when China was denying the existence of such places.
“In response, the government tried to silence them, revoke their visas and evict them from the country,” BuzzFeed News wrote on its listing for the award. “It would block most westerners and disabled journalists from accessing the entire region. The publication of basic facts about inmates slowed down to a trickle. “
Working out of London and refusing to be silenced, Rajagopalan has teamed up with two contributors, Alison Killing, a licensed architect who specializes in forensic analysis of architecture and satellite imagery of buildings, and Christo Buschek, a programmer who develops tools tailored for data journalists.
“The blazing Xinjiang stories shed much-needed light on one of the worst human rights violations of our time,” said Mark Schoofs, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News. “I’m very proud of Megha – who was kicked out of China but still found ways to tell this critical story – and of 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 watch the ceremony live because she didn’t expect to win. She only found out when Schoofs called to congratulate her on the win.
“I’m totally shocked, I didn’t expect that,” said Rajagopalan on the phone from London.
She said she was deeply grateful to the teams of people who worked with her on this, including her staff Killing and Buschek, her editor Alex Campbell, the BuzzFeed News PR team, and the organizations that funded her work, including the Pulitzer Center.
Rajagopalan also paid tribute to the courage of the sources who spoke to them despite the danger and threat of retaliation against them and their families.
“I’m so grateful that they stood up and were ready to speak to us,” she said. “That takes an incredible amount of courage.”
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 did Chinese officials detain up to 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities?
For months, the trio compared censored Chinese images with uncensored mapping software. They started with a huge data set of 50,000 locations. Buschek has developed a custom tool to sort these images. Then “the team had to go through thousands of images one at a time and compare many of the websites with other available evidence,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its award submission.
They eventually identified more than 260 buildings that appeared to be fortified prison camps. Some of the sites could accommodate more than 10,000 people, and many contained factories where prisoners were forced to do hard labor.
The groundbreaking technological reporting was accompanied by extensive, old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism.
Excluded from China, Rajagopalan instead traveled to neighboring Kazakhstan, a country known for its own authoritarian impulses and where many Chinese Muslims have sought refuge. There, Rajagopalan found more than two dozen prisoners in the Xinjiang camps, won their trust and convinced them to share their nightmarish accounts with the world.
An article took readers to one of the camps described in unprecedented, vivid detail from the survivors’ accounts and then rendered into a 3D model thanks to Killing’s architectural skills.
“Throughout her reporting, Rajagopalan had to endure harassment from the Chinese government, which lasted beyond the short-term eviction of her apartment in Beijing,” says the award entry. At one point, the Chinese government “posted their 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 imprisonment and treatment of its Muslim citizens, labeled genocide and crimes against humanity by great Western nations.
The second award from BuzzFeed News went to the FinCEN Files, which were named as finalists in the International Reporting category.
Considered the largest news coverage project in history, this series involved more than 100 news organizations in 88 countries collaborating on a series of stories for 16 months.
It all started in 2017 when a source gave BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold a huge cache of secret US government documents. Documents included more than 2,100 reports of suspicious activity, or SARs, which are top secret documents filed by banks to warn the government of potential criminal activity. Few have ever been seen by the public.
Working with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed News and collaborating editors sifted through the documents, which had narrative sections that were 3 million words long – 14 times the length of the novel Moby-Dick. Then they checked everything three times for fact. The process took more than a year.
In addition, reporters conducted hundreds of interviews around the globe, received tons of internal banking information and thousands of pages of public records, and filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and several public record lawsuits.
The investigation revealed, among other things, how five giants in the global banking industry – JPMorgan, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon – benefited from fees from dubious transactions with drug smugglers and terrorists.
The worldwide reaction to the stories exposing the stream of dirty money has been profound. The FinCEN files have been credited with providing the final boost to the successful passage of comprehensive anti-money laundering laws in the United States. Legislators from Great Britain and the EU to Thailand and Liberia have also made their own requests.
“The FinCEN files,” said Schoofs, “have taken 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 these documents. Building on these invaluable documents, monumental coverage around the world has shown how big banks have profited from dirty money flowing through their accounts while the US government watched but seldom acted.
Last week, former Treasury Secretary Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison for leaking highly confidential bank documents to Leopold. Edwards – a former senior advisor to the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network (FinCEN) – was not charged with leaking the documents that served as the basis for the FinCEN file series, but admitted after her conviction.
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs, who himself won a Pulitzer for international coverage in 2000, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on Thursday calling on President Joe Biden to pardon Edwards in recognition of the massive corruption, who had exposed their actions.
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, Azeen Ghorayshi, Michael Sallah, Tanya Kozyreva and Emma Loop.
BuzzFeed News has been named a Pulitzer finalist. In 2018, the outlet was a finalist in international coverage 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 named a finalist in the same category for a study that uncovered how large corporations are exploiting a powerful dispute settlement process to bend countries to their will.