PETALING JAYA: For recording artistes, there are the Grammys. For actors, there are the Oscars and Emmys. And for those in the sciences and literature, there’s the Nobel Prize.
But what about those in journalism? Indeed, there is a coveted award for outstanding journalists – and it’s none other than the Pulitzer.
The prize is named after former United States representative Joseph Pulitzer (1847-1911), who instructed in his will that his wealth be used to establish the award as well as a journalism school.
First presented on June 4, 1917, the award, presented by New York’s Columbia University, is considered to be the greatest honour any journalist can attain. The prize is also awarded for achievements in literature, drama, and music.
Well, you might be surprised to learn that the long list of recipients includes three Malaysian-born individuals who have been recognised for their outstanding work in the field of American journalism.
The first Malaysian to ever receive a Pulitzer is Kuala Lumpur-born Mei Fong. The graduate of the National University of Singapore and Columbia University joined the “Wall Street Journal” in 2001, and reported extensively on the Sept 11 terrorist attacks that year.
But it was her work on how China had transformed itself in the run-up to the 2008 Olympics that earned her the Pulitzer for International Reporting in 2007.
Specifically, the now 50-year-old wrote about the treatment of workers involved in the construction boom, as well as a doctor who sued a factory for polluting a nearby river.
Named a “top-50 influencer on US-China relations” by “Foreign Policy” magazine, Mei Fong has written several books on China’s one-child policy, with her work on this topic even used for an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver” in 2019.
Another Malaysian, Edmund Yong, received the Pulitzer in 2021 for his series of reports on the pandemic. Attached to “The Atlantic”, the 42-year-old produced a series of articles on the impact of Covid-19, including the dangers it posed and the US government’s failures at handling the crisis.
Even before it was officially declared a pandemic, the science journalist had already written on how the US was not prepared to deal with an outbreak on that scale.
And when Covid-19 did emerge, he theorised how the pandemic would unfold there, and noted that the lack of international communication would hamstring local efforts at combating the virus.
He further expounded on how politics would derail the overall handling of the crisis, given the ill-equipped and underfunded state of the US healthcare system, coupled with former US president Donald Trump’s detrimental policies.
For his efforts, Yong was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.
The latest Malaysian to win a Pulitzer did so just last year, when photojournalist Marcus Yam snagged the prize in the Breaking News Photography category.
Born and raised in KL, Yam initially studied aerospace engineering in hopes of becoming an astronaut. At the same time, he nursed a passion for photography, which proved to be his way forward.
When the US military pulled out of Afghanistan last year, Yam went into the region to capture the chaos that followed. The images, which he captured for the “Los Angeles Times”, would earn him the award.
According to the “Times”, he took photographs of “unspeakable tragedy and abiding emotion” despite being roughed up by insurgents, being in close proximity with the fighters, and coping with the technical hurdles of sending images out of a war zone.
Even before this achievement, the 39-year-old had already been a member of two Pulitzer-winning news teams, which worked on covering the 2014 Oso landslide in Washington, and the 2015 San Bernardino terrorist attacks in California.
Since then, he has not slowed down in his work of highlighting crises across the world, including photographing the effects of the Russia-Ukraine conflict on the civilian population.