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Cronkite Alumna Wins Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting

April 19, 2009
Julie CartJulie Cart

Julie Cart, a 1980 journalism graduate of Arizona State University and member of the Cronkite School Alumni Hall of Fame, won the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for a powerful Los Angeles Times series on fighting wildfires.

Cart and Bettina Boxall, both on the Times metro reporting staff, won for their five-part “Big Burn” series that explored the growth and costs of wildfires. The reporters used the Freedom of Information Act to obtain cartons of U.S. Forest Service records.

The Pulitzer board applauded Cart and Boxall for “their fresh and painstaking exploration into the cost and effectiveness of attempts to combat the growing menace of wildfires across the western United States.”

The series revealed that wildfires are growing in both intensity and expense and that firefighters are often pressured into using air tanker drops even when they will do no good because the aerial water drops – dubbed “CNN drops” by fire officials – “make good television.” The series also explained how more Americans are living in areas prone to wildfires where escape routes are inadequate and how wide swaths of sagebrush are being devastated by wildfires.

Cart, who was an intercollegiate athlete at ASU, has the university’s ninth all-time discus throw record with her 52.04-meter mark recorded in the 1980 season. She was one of the first women's conference champions in ASU track and field history, winning the discus at the 1976 Intermountain Conference Championships. She also made the U.S. Olympics trials.

She graduated with a B.S. in journalism in 1980 and was inducted into the Cronkite Alumni Hall of Fame in 1998.

"Hooray for the L.A. Times,” Cart told the newspaper staff after the Pulitzers were announced. “It was great that we were given the amount of time to report something that is so important to our readers.”

The series took 15 months from idea to publication last summer.

“The Big Burn series is a marvelous example of the kind of important, in-depth and nuanced journalism we hope our students will be inspired by and aspire to produce,” said Cronkite Dean Christopher Callahan. “We congratulate both Julie Cart and Bettina Boxall and are proud to call Julie one of our own.”

The Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting honors “a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.”

The Pulitzer is the 39th won by the Los Angeles Times, the nation’s fourth-largest daily newspaper.

“Wildfires are part of the landscape in Southern California and we did what any serious newsgathering organization does: devote the time and the resources to tell our readers about the causes and effects of this growing menace,” Times Editor Russ Stanton said in a prepared statement. “Our team of reporters, editors, photographers, graphic artists and Web producers devoted more than a year to this project, including traveling to the other side of the globe, to deliver this terrific series. We remain committed to providing this type of in-depth coverage on topics that are important to our readers.”

This year the other finalists in the explanatory reporting category were from The New York Times and Washington Post.

Meanwhile, another Cronkite alumna, Marie Dillon, and two of her Chicago Tribune colleagues were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in Editorial Writing for their calls for ethics reform in the Illinois statehouse. Dillon graduated summa cum laude in 1982 with a B.S. in journalism.

And Steve Doig, Knight Chair of Journalism at the Cronkite School, advised East Valley Tribune reporters Ryan Gabrielson and Paul Giblin in their investigation that won the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting. Early in planning the project, the reporters and project editor Patti Epler consulted with Doig, an expert in computer-assisted journalism, about the best methods for gathering and analyzing the data they needed to investigate how police protection suffered due to Maricopa County Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s emphasis on immigration sweeps.