BuzzFeed News on Friday won a Pulitzer Prize for a series of innovative articles that used satellite imagery, 3D architectural models and bold personal interviews to uncover China’s vast infrastructure for detaining hundreds of thousands of Muslims in its Xinjiang region. The Pulitzer Prize is the highest honor in journalism, and this is the digital marketing’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 ever investigative reporting project that revealed corruption in the global banking sector, was honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A former US Treasury Secretary was sentenced to prison just last week for leaking the thousands of secret government documents that served as its origin.
The Xinjiang Series won in the International Reporting category and was recognized as a finalist in the Explanatory Reporting category, and FinCEN Files was recognized as a finalist in the International Reporting category. BuzzFeed News has been a Pulitzer Finalist twice before.
“In response, the government tried to silence her, revoke her visa and push her out of the country,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its contribution to the award. “It would continue to cut off access to the entire region for most Westerners and studio journalists. The release of basic facts about detainees lowered to a seep. ”
Rajagopalan worked 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 builds tools tailored for data journalists.
“The burning Xinjiang stories are in desperate need of light on one of the worst human rights violations of our time,” said Mark Schoofs, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News. “I am immensely proud of Megha – who was thrown out of China but still found ways to cover up this critical story – as well as 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 did not even see the ceremony live because she did not expect to win. She only found out when Schoofs called to congratulate her on the victory.
“I am in complete shock, I did not expect this,” Rajagopalan said by telephone from London.
She said she was deeply grateful to the teams of people who worked with her on this, including her collaborators, Killing and Buschek, her editor Alex Campbell, BuzzFeed News’ public relations team and the organizations that funded their work. , including the Pulitzer Center.
Rajagoplan also acknowledged the courage of the sources who spoke to them despite the risk and threat of retaliation against them and their families.
“I am so grateful that they got up and were willing to talk to us,” she said. “It takes so much incredible courage to do so.”
The three set out to analyze thousands of satellite images of the Xinjiang region, an area larger than Alaska, to try to answer a simple question: Where did Chinese officials detain as many as 1 million Uyghur, Kazakhs and other Muslim minorities?
For several months, the trio compared censored Chinese images with uncensored mapping software. They started with a huge data set of 50,000 locations. Buschek built a custom tool to sort these images. Then “the team had to go through thousands of images one by one and verify many of the pages against other available evidence,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its award entry.
They eventually identified more than 260 structures that appeared to be fortified detention camps. Some of the sites were able to accommodate more than 10,000 people, and many contained factories where prisoners were forced to work.
The groundbreaking technological reporting was also accompanied by extensive old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism.
Rajagopalan is excluded from China and instead traveled to his neighbor Kazakhstan, a country known for its own authoritarian impulses, where many Chinese Muslims have sought refuge. There, Rajagopalan located more than two dozen people who had been prisoners in the Xinjiang camps, won their trust and convinced them to share their nightmare accounts with the world.
An article led readers into one of the camps, which was described in unprecedented, vivid details from the survivors’ accounts and then reproduced, thanks to Killing’s architectural skills, into a 3D model.
“Throughout his reporting, Rajagopalan had to endure harassment from the Chinese government, which had persisted in addition to forcing her to pack her apartment in Beijing at short notice,” the price statement reads. At one point, “the Chinese government posted her personal information, including a government identification number, on Twitter.”
In the end, the series of four stories painted a judgmental and detailed portrait of China’s horrific detention and treatment of its Muslim citizens, as great Western nations have marked a genocide and a crime against humanity.
BuzzFeed News’ second honor was FinCEN Files, which was named a finalist in the International Reporting category.
Named the largest reporting project in history, this series saw more than 100 news organizations in 88 countries collaborate on a series of stories for 16 months.
It all began in 2017 when BuzzFeed News reporter Jason Leopold got a huge cache of secret U.S. government documents from a source. The documents included more than 2,100 suspicious activity reports or SARs, which are top-secret documents filed by banks to warn the government of potential criminal activity. Few are ever seen by the public.
Partnership with the international consortium of investigative journalists, BuzzFeed News and collaborative newsrooms read the documents, whose narrative sections were 3 million words long – 14 times the length of the novel Moby-Dick. Then they checked it all three times. The process took more than a year to complete.
In addition, journalists conducted hundreds of interviews around the globe, obtained reams of internal banking data and thousands of pages of public records, and filed dozens of requests for the Freedom of Information Act and numerous public lawsuits.
The study revealed, among other things, how five giants from the global banking industry – JPMorgan, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank and Bank of New York Mellon – benefited from fees from shady transactions involving drug smugglers and terrorists.
The global response to the stories that exposed the flow of dirty money was profound. FinCEN files were credited for giving a final push to the successful passage of comprehensive anti-money laundering legislation in the United States. Legislators from the UK to the EU to Thailand to Liberia have also conducted their own investigations.
“FinCEN Files,” said Schoofs, “took financial reporting to new heights. Jason received an unprecedented amount of secret government documents from a brave source, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who was recently sentenced to prison for giving them. Starting with these invaluable documents, a monumental reporting effort across the globe revealed how large banks made money on dirty money that ran through their accounts while the U.S. government watched but rarely took action. ”
Last week, former Treasury Department official Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards was sentenced to six months in prison for leaking the highly confidential bank documents to Leopold. Edwards – a former senior adviser to the Treasury’s Financial Enforcement Network or FinCEN – was not accused of leaking the documents that formed the basis of the FinCEN Files series, but she admitted after her verdict to do so.
BuzzFeed News editor-in-chief Mark Schoofs, who himself won a Pulitzer in 2000 for international reporting, wrote a statement to the New York Times on Thursday urging President Joe Biden to pardon Edwards in recognition of the enormous corruption her actions exposed.
The 11 current and former BuzzFeed News journalists 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 previously been listed as a Pulitzer Finalist. In 2018, sales were finalists in international reporting on a series of stories linking more than a dozen deaths in the United States and Britain to a targeted assassination program from the Kremlin. A year earlier, BuzzFeed News was honored as a finalist in the same category for a study that revealed how large companies exploit a strong dispute resolution process to bend countries to their will.