The first Asian American ever elected to the Pulitzer Prize Board was Viet Thanh Nguyen.
His achievement was groundbreaking — the first Asian American voting member on the final panel that chooses Pulitzer Prize winners.
But he remains alone. Nguyen’s election came only in 2020, more than a century after the Pulitzer Prizes were first awarded, honoring the best in journalism, literature and the arts. Nearly two years later, Nguyen remains the only Asian American in that room.
“It is important that the Pulitzer board has an Asian American representative, and it’d be great if we had more than one,” said Nguyen, a professor at the University of Southern California who won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction in 2016 for his novel “The Sympathizer.“
“The important thing about having representation of any kind is that, number one, we have to have it. And number two, we have to have a diversity of it in every way. So we have to have diversity within an organization — and then within every category, we have to have diversity within that category,” Nguyen said.
The Pulitzer board has never elected an Asian American journalist. Frederick T. C. Yu, a native of China, served on the Pulitzer board in 1987–88 as a nonvoting member, by virtue of his position as acting dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.
Like Nguyen, other award judges have found themselves the sole member of their race or ethnic group.
We requested the race and ethnicity of the 66 judges making the final decisions for four of journalism’s most prestigious awards this year: the Pulitzer Prizes, the Peabody Awards, the Gerald Loeb Awards and the Livingston Awards.
For those who didn’t respond, we verified race and ethnicity using published sources of information, such as news stories. We were unable to verify the background of 23 judges.
CREDIT: Creative Commons images of the Peabody Award by Peabody Awards and Pulitzer Prize Medal by Vladimir Babenko. Art by Irena Hwang.
Of the 43 judges for whom we were able to determine race and ethnicity, this is what we found:
- There is not a single Asian American among the Livingston Awards’ national judges.
- There is only one Black judge among the Loeb Awards’ final judges .
- There is only one Latino judge on the Peabody Awards’ Board of Jurors; one Latino member among the Livingston Awards’ national judges; and one Latino member among the Loeb Awards’ final judges.
- Among the 66 judges on the four panels we contacted, only one person identified as Native American and one as Middle Eastern.
According to the U.S. Census, Hispanics and Latinos make up nearly 20% of the U.S. population, but based on the judges’ responses and published reports, Latinos make up just 10% of the Livingston Awards’ national judges, 6% of the Peabody Awards’ Board of Jurors, and 5% of the Loeb Awards’ national judges.
And while Asian Americans make up more than 6% of the U.S. population, there are no Asian American Livingston Award national judges.
Prize administrators say judge diversity is a priority — but more progress is needed
We asked the administrators and directors of the four prizes, who oversee judge selection, to respond to our findings.
“I think the board has been quite proactive in pursuing diversity among its members,” Marjorie Miller, the current administrator of the Pulitzer Prizes, wrote in an email. “We value diversity very much and … are very conscious of gender, geographic, racial and ethnic diversity in selecting juries.”
She also noted that the membership of the 2022–2023 board is changing. Aside from the president of Columbia University, voting members of the Pulitzer board cannot serve beyond nine years.
Three have termed out this year: John Daniszewski, co-chair of the 2021–2022 Pulitzer Prize Board and vice president of standards at The Associated Press, and Katherine Boo, a contributing editor for the New Yorker, who are both white; and Gail Collins, a New York Times opinion columnist, who declined to answer. Ginger Thompson, ProPublica’s chief of correspondents, who is Black, filled one of the vacancies.
Steve Coll, who recently left his position as dean of the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and did not respond to a question about his race and ethnicity, will be replaced by Jelani Cobb, the incoming dean, who is Black.
That means, of the 17 voting board members awarding the 2023 prizes, five members are Black, two are Latino, and one is Asian American. There are two vacancies still. Of the two nonvoting members, one is Black and one is white.
Dana Canedy, a former administrator for the Pulitzers, told us, “Clearly, there’s work to do across awards.”
CREDIT: Olivier H. Gamas
Canedy was the first woman and person of color to hold the administrator job in the Pulitzer board’s history. “On the one hand, that’s progress. On the other hand, it’s not like I’m a unicorn. Certainly, there are qualified people before me who could have served in that role,” said Canedy, who recently stepped down as publisher of Simon & Schuster’s flagship imprint and is working on a sequel to her bestselling memoir, “A Journal for Jordan.”
A former New York Times journalist, Lynette Clemetson, director of the Livingston Awards for Young Journalists at the University of Michigan, noted that seven regional judges also play a part in selecting winners. Those judges sort through the initial entries and select finalists for the national judges.
We contacted all seven regional judges and four responded: two are Asian American, one is Black and one is Latino.
Nonetheless, Clemetson said, “No organization should ever be complacent about its diversity. We are always weighing how we can improve our processes.”
Clemetson also said that the Livingston Awards plan to institute term limits on judges, providing opportunities for new voices and perspectives.
“The key is creating a space for active discussion,” Clemetson said.
Administrators from the Loeb and Peabody awards did not respond to our requests for comment on our findings before this story was published.
In an earlier interview, Jonathan Daillak, executive director of the Loebs, said the organization has made progress in diversifying its judges. “Especially in the last five years, we’ve tried to focus on diversity for the judges in the preliminary panel and the final judging panel,” Daillak said.
“We have definitely made effort and progress,” he added. “I think that we will continue to make progress.”
Of the four awards we reviewed, the Peabody has the largest proportion of judges of color. Six people serving on the Peabody Awards’ Board of Jurors are Black, four are Asian American, and one is Middle Eastern. Despite Latinos making up nearly one in five Americans, only one of the 18 Peabody jurors is Latino.
Jeffrey Jones, executive director of the Peabody Awards, said in an earlier interview that “diversity is what makes Peabody strong,” and that he appoints jurors using multiple criteria, including race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation and age.
Most recently, he added Malaysian-born podcast critic Nicholas Quah and culture writer Hannah Giorgis, who is Black, in November. Both are in their early 30s.
“You try not to have all of the same flavors in our democracy,” Jones said. “So we try to do that as well.”
In an email after this story first published, Jones wrote: “Sixty-seven percent of the Peabody board is diverse in terms of race and ethnicity. Twelve of 18 of our jurors are people of color.”
No data on judge diversity, no consistent judge selection process
Journalists have long demanded transparency from corporations, governments and institutions in their work.
The New York Times, for instance, in 2020 published an exhaustive list of the race and ethnicity of more than 900 of the nation’s most powerful people. And a decade ago, the Los Angeles Times investigated the racial and ethnic makeup of voters for the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences
Voices, a student news project that publishes during the Asian American Journalists Association conference, has investigated industry diversity issues since 2017. Past topics have included the racial makeup of the leadership team at the nation’s largest news outlets’ mastheads, pay disparity and intern diversity.
Until now, there has been little public scrutiny of the racial and ethnic makeup of judges for journalism’s most prestigious awards.
Of the four awards that we contacted, only the Peabody Awards’ director shared with us aggregate data of their board’s demographic makeup. The administrator for the Pulitzer Prizes and the director of the Livingston Awards said that their organizations did not collect this information.
We asked the executive director for the Loebs for demographic data for the award’s judges. He said it would be up to individual judges to respond to the request.
“When the spotlight is turned back on us, everything suddenly feels a little different,” said Sisi Wei, co-director of the nonprofit journalism organization OpenNews. “There’s a lot more resistance. There’s a lot less righteousness about why, of course, we should have access to this information.”
Earlier this year, Wei, together with labor union NewsGuild’s president Jon Schleuss, organized an open letter to the Pulitzer Prize Board requesting it only considers newsrooms transparent about their staff diversity. The letter cited an ill-fated historical survey of news organization diversity, which, after nearly half a century, no longer receives enough responses to produce sound analysis. The survey’s lead researcher quit in protest, citing “supreme hypocrisy on the part of the journalism industry.”
Nearly 200 journalism organizations—including the Asian American Journalists Association, National Association of Black Journalists, National Association of Hispanic Journalists and Native American Journalists Association—signed the open letter.
Miller, the administrator of the Pulitzers, said she was uncertain the board would make releasing diversity data an eligibility requirement, and board members have not yet reviewed the letter in a meeting. The Pulitzer Prize has not issued a public response to the letter.
Daniszewski, who just completed his term as a member and co-chair of the Pulitzer board, said newsrooms should be working toward greater diversity but seemed skeptical about the board adopting such a policy.
“I think the Pulitzer Board is its own thing — its own role in society,” Daniszewski said. “Its role is not to police news organizations. So if there was such a proposal, I think we’d have to think very long and hard about how it would work.”
For the Peabody Awards, the director is the sole appointer of new judges.
The Livingston Awards director and existing judges nominate potential judges, then invite new ones after discussion.
For the Loeb Awards, new judges are also selected by the director and existing judges. The board often tries to replace outgoing seats with people from the same newsroom, Daillak said.
The Pulitzer board chooses new members to fill vacancies. “We try to have a [past Pulitzer] winner or finalist when we can,” Miller said of the Pulitzer judges. “We like to balance diversity of all kinds. If we run out of candidates, we go back to board members and previous board members for more input.”
There are typically more than 100 jurors, who act as preliminary judges and winnow down prize entries to two to four finalists, depending on the category — from which the Pulitzer board selects the winner. Canedy, the Pulitzer administrator from 2017 to 2020, said she selected all of them while in charge.
“I chose all the jurors, I qualified all the applications, I decided if a board member needed to recuse him or herself for reasons, I advised the board on procedures,” she said.
Miller, who became the Pulitzer administrator in March, said choosing the jurors who select the finalists is a collaborative process with staff — fielding recommendations from her and other board members’ networks.
The cost of a lack of diversity on boards
Nguyen says that other Asian American writers often ask him to read their novels, since he is a Pulitzer winner, and, if he likes the book, to write a sentence or two for the cover.
But if those books eventually become Pulitzer finalists, Nguyen said he has to recuse himself from the final award discussion.
“I don’t want to be the sole voice for anybody for anything. And I don’t want to be the sole Asian American in a room,” Nguyen said, adding he was hopeful a second Asian American would join the Pulitzer board during his tenure.
“We should be willfully seeking out diversity at every level that we can control. And you — everybody else out there — should be putting pressure on the Pulitzers [and] every other award-giving body out there to do our best to diversify,” Nguyen said.
Having people of color in the judging room can change perceptions about what kind of journalism is worthy of recognition.
In 1984, the Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize for a series examining Southern California’s growing Latino community, all written by Mexican American journalists. The prize gave legitimacy to writing about underreported communities, journalist Frank Sotomayor, a co-editor of the original project, wrote in a retrospective published in 2017.
“Until publication of our series, such coverage had often been undervalued and derided as ‘the taco beat,’” Sotomayor wrote.
There’s no record of the deliberations that led to the Latino series’ winning the award, Sotomayor wrote. But he suggested that the presence of diverse judges likely helped.
Robert C. Maynard, the first Black editor and publisher of a major U.S. metropolitan newspaper, chaired the jury that chose the Latino series as a finalist. “As the nation’s most prominent advocate for media diversity, Maynard would have been drawn to our series,” Sotomayor wrote.
The Pulitzer board had only white male members for more than 60 years, according to the organization. Its first Black members joined the board for the 1979–1980 season: Roger Wilkins, who wrote Pulitzer-winning editorials for Washington Post during the Watergate scandal, and William Raspberry, a Washington Post columnist who won the Pulitzer for commentary in 1994.
The two were on the board when the Latinos series was awarded the Pulitzer for public service.
The panels of preliminary judges are often smaller than those for final judges. And sometimes, only one preliminary judge is a person of color.
Efrain Hernandez Jr., then an assistant foreign and national editor at the Los Angeles Times, chaired the Pulitzer jury responsible for selecting three finalists for National Reporting in 2019. He remembers being the only person of color in the room, and says that his unique position made him more attuned to diversity issues during the judging process.
“I looked to see how many women are there and whether there are people of color” on news teams being considered, said Hernandez, who is now a deputy national security editor at The Washington Post. “I also looked for diversity in who is quoted — whether there’s representation in the officials who are sought out for the story.”
Attention to diversity is important in journalism awards because they play a role in making a statement about the values of the profession, said John Harris, a Livingston Award national judge and co-founder of Politico.
Journalism at its best “reflects the diversity of society” and “shines a light on obstacles that historically marginalized communities still face in this country,” and therefore awards must reflect that value, Harris said.
If journalists value diversity in their coverage, they should also value diversity among the judges who give out prizes, said Leah Rush, a consultant who has helped newsrooms submit journalism award entries since 2008.
“If this is the way that the internal feedback loop and recognition and merit are owed, let’s make sure it’s the most inclusive and is expansive enough to fit everyone that we want to see working in the field and the stories” we want to see covered, Rush said.
The promise of diverse judges
When presented with our findings, an official with the National Association of Hispanic Journalists said she hoped the industry’s prizes would work to diversify their judging panels.
“We hope that this information serves as a catalyst for change, and that these institutions work harder to recruit journalism judges who truly represent the diverse communities of the United States,” said Yvette Cabrera, a vice president for the National Association of Hispanic Journalists.
Jessica Xiao, former director of communications for the Asian American Journalists Association, asserted the importance of institutional changes.
“I sincerely hope that your data is taken into reflection by awards administrators,” Xiao said by email. “The recruitment of judges — and judges who are fully representative of the fabric of the nation (or at least, the scope of the awards program) — is a serious and worthwhile endeavor.”
Judging panels without diversity contribute to non-diverse winners. White people made up 84% of Pulitzer Prize winners in the first 100 years of the awards, according to a 2016 Columbia Journalism Review analysis.
“The whole award scene — Peabody being an exception — has spared a lot of empathy on things that white Americans care about,” said Tony Lin, co-producer of the series “Transnational” — one of 30 Peabody winners this year.
“Transnational” followed transgender correspondents as they interviewed trans community members across the world, from Detroit to Mexico City to Indonesia. The Peabody Awards — which have the most diverse judging panel we surveyed, though still with just one Latino judge on its board of jurors — lauded it for “treating global trans issues with the dignity, respect and rigor they deserve.”
Lin enjoyed this recognition, because a crew with life experience as part of the trans community reported and produced the story. He thought that perspective had often been passed over in the world of prestigious journalism awards.
“If you don’t live that life, you can’t really know how good or how bad something is,” Lin said.
To assess diversity among top journalism awards, we requested the race and ethnicity of the 66 judges making the final decisions for four of journalism’s most prestigious awards this year: the Pulitzer Prizes, the Peabody Awards, the Gerald Loeb Awards and the Livingston Awards.
For each award, initial judges review submissions and recommend a select few for a final round. Final round judges select winners.
While initial judges contribute to the selection process, surveying all of them would have been impractical for five reporters in just one month of reporting. The Pulitzer Prizes alone have more than 100 preliminary jurors across 16 award categories.
To obtain demographic information, we emailed the final judges for each award. In some cases, we contacted their employers’ media relations staff and other executives at their company. We asked judges to share their racial and ethnic identities from the U.S. Census Bureau categories, but also allowed judges to self-identify.
In our initial requests for demographic information, we asked judges to share their gender and sexual identities. However, due to the potentially sensitive nature of these identities, we eventually decided to make these questions optional and focus our analysis on racial identities.
Of the 66 judges we attempted to reach, 30 answered and shared with us their race and ethnicity. For judges who did not respond or declined to respond, we verified the race and ethnicity for 13 of them through published sources of information, such as press releases, news articles, personal statements and public speeches. Links to each source used are included in the table embedded earlier in this story. We could not definitively verify the race and ethnicity for 23 judges.
Updated, July 31, 2022: This story was updated to include a comment we received after the story was first published.
Updated, Aug. 3, 2022: The story and chart was updated to reflect the race of a judge that we received after the story first published.