BuzzFeed News won a Pulitzer Prize on Friday for a series of innovative articles that used satellite images, 3D architectural models, and daring in-person interviews to expose 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 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-ever investigative reporting project, which exposed corruption in the global banking industry, was honored as a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. A former US Treasury Official was sentenced to prison just last week for leaking the thousands of secret government documents that served as its genesis.
The Xinjiang series won in the International Reporting category and was recognized as a finalist in the Explanatory Reporting category, and the FinCEN Files was recognized as a finalist in the International Reporting category. BuzzFeed News has been a Pulitzer finalist twice before.
Pulitzer Prizes were also awarded to the Minneapolis Star Tribune for their coverage of George Floyd’s killing by police and its aftermath. Darnella Frazier, the teen who recorded the viral video of Floyd’s death, received a special citation from the Pulitzer Prizes. The Boston Globe won for investigative reporting that uncovered systemic failures by state governments to share information about dangerous truck drivers. Ed Yong of the Atlantic won the Explanatory Reporting prize for his pieces on the COVID-19 pandemic. He shared the prize with a team of Reuters reporters for their examination of how “qualified immunity” shields police who use excessive force from prosecution.
The Pulitzer for Local Reporting went to the Tampa Bay Times for exposing a sheriff’s secretive intelligence operation to profile schoolchildren, while the staffs of the The Marshall Project, Alabama Media Group, The Indianapolis Star and the Invisible Institute won the National Reporting category for their yearlong investigation of K-9 units and the damage that police dogs inflict on Americans. The New York Times won the Public Service Reporting Pulitzer for its “courageous, prescient and sweeping coverage of the coronavirus pandemic that exposed racial and economic inequities, government failures in the U.S. and beyond.”
In 2017, not long after China began to detain thousands of Muslims in Xinjiang, BuzzFeed News reporter Megha Rajagopalan was the first to visit an internment camp — at a time when China denied that such places existed.
“In response, the government tried to silence her, revoking her visa and ejecting her from the country,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its entry for the prize. “It would go on to cut off access to the entire region for most Westerners and stymie journalists. The release of basic facts about detainees slowed to a trickle.”
Working from London, and refusing to be silenced, Rajagopalan partnered with two contributors, Alison Killing, a licensed architect who specializes in forensic analysis of architecture and satellite images of buildings, and Christo Buschek, a programmer who builds tools tailored for data journalists.
“The blazing Xinjiang stories shine desperately needed light on one of the worst human rights abuses of our time,” said Mark Schoofs, editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed News. “I am immensely proud of Megha — who was kicked out of China yet still found ways to cover this critical story — as well as Alison and Christo for their brave and harrowing investigation, a leading example of innovative forensic analysis and creative reporting.”
Minutes after she won, Rajagopalan told BuzzFeed News she wasn’t even watching the ceremony live because she wasn’t expecting to win. She only found out when Schoofs called to congratulate her for the victory.
“I’m in complete shock, I did not expect this,” Rajagopalan said over the phone 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.
Rajagopalan also acknowledged the courage of the sources who spoke to them despite the risk and threat of retaliation against them and their families.
“I’m so grateful they stood up and were willing to talk to us,” she said. “It takes so much unbelievable courage to do that.”
The three of them set out to analyze thousands of satellite images of the Xinjiang region, an area bigger than Alaska, to try to answer a simple question: Where were Chinese officials detaining as many as 1 million Uyghurs, Kazakhs, and other Muslim minorities?
For months, the trio compared censored Chinese images with uncensored mapping software. They began with an enormous dataset of 50,000 locations. Buschek built a custom tool to sort through those images. Then, “the team had to go through thousands of images one by one, verifying many of the sites against other available evidence,” BuzzFeed News wrote in its prize entry.
They ultimately identified more than 260 structures that appeared to be fortified detention camps. Some of the sites were capable of holding more than 10,000 people and many contained factories where prisoners were forced into labor.
The groundbreaking technological reporting was also accompanied by extensive old-fashioned “shoe leather” journalism.
Barred from China, Rajagopalan instead traveled to its 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, winning their trust and convincing them to share their nightmarish accounts with the world.
One article took readers inside one of the camps, which was described in unprecedented, vivid detail from the survivors’ accounts and then rendered, thanks to Killing’s architectural skills, into a 3D model.
“Throughout her reporting, Rajagopalan had to endure harassment from the Chinese government, which had persisted beyond forcing her to pack up her apartment in Beijing on short notice,” the prize entry read. At one point, “the Chinese government posted her personal information, including a government identification number, on Twitter.”
Ultimately, the series of four stories painted a damning and detailed portrait of China’s horrific detention and treatment of its Muslim citizens, which major Western nations have labeled a genocide and a crime against humanity.
BuzzFeed News’ second honor was for the FinCEN Files, named a finalist in the International Reporting category.
That series, billed as the largest reporting project in history, 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 was handed a huge cache of secret US 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 alert the government of potentially criminal activity. Few have ever been seen by the public.
Partnering with the International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, BuzzFeed News and collaborating newsrooms pored through the documents, the narrative sections of which were 3 million words long — 14 times the length of the novel Moby-Dick. Then they fact-checked it all, three times over. The process took more than a year to complete.
In addition, reporters conducted hundreds of interviews around the globe, obtained reams of internal bank data and thousands of pages of public records, and filed dozens of Freedom of Information Act requests and several public records lawsuits.
The investigation revealed, among other things, how five giants of the global banking industry — JPMorgan, HSBC, Standard Chartered Bank, Deutsche Bank, and Bank of New York Mellon — profited off fees from shady transactions involving drug smugglers and terrorists.
The global response to the stories exposing the torrent of dirty money was profound. The FinCEN Files were credited with giving a final push to the successful passage of sweeping anti–money laundering legislation in the US. Lawmakers from the UK to the EU to Thailand to Liberia have also been holding inquiries of their own.
“The FinCEN Files,” Schoofs said, “took financial reporting to new heights. Jason received an unprecedented trove of secret government documents from a brave source, Natalie Mayflower Sours Edwards, who was recently sentenced to prison for providing them. Starting with those invaluable documents, a monumental reporting effort spanning the globe exposed how major banks profited from dirty money coursing through their accounts, while the US 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 banking documents to Leopold. Edwards — a former senior adviser at the Treasury Department’s Financial Crimes Enforcement Network, or FinCEN — was not charged with leaking the documents that served as the basis for the FinCEN Files series, but she admitted after her sentencing to doing so.
BuzzFeed News Editor-in-Chief Mark Schoofs, who won a Pulitzer himself in 2000 for international reporting, wrote an opinion piece for the New York Times on Thursday, calling on President Joe Biden to pardon Edwards in recognition for the huge corruption her actions exposed.
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 listed as a Pulitzer finalist before. In 2018, the outlet was a finalist in international reporting for a series of stories that linked more than a dozen deaths in the US and the UK to a targeted assassination program from the Kremlin. A year prior, BuzzFeed News was honored as a finalist in the same category for an investigation that revealed how major corporations exploit a powerful dispute-settlement process to bend countries to their will.