Telling the Untold Story: Peter Sawyer ’09

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As graduation day neared in 2009, my plans to put my economics degree to work on Wall Street fell away with the economy. I instead tumbled into another industry in crisis: journalism.

I went to work for my uncle, Jon Sawyer. He started the Pulitzer Center in 2006 with seed money from the Pulitzer family, which had owned the paper where he spent his career, The St. Louis Post-Dispatch.

His vision was simple: give travel grants to journalists to get them beyond American borders.

Skype, email and Twitter don’t cut it. Being in the field is key. For example, in 2011, my colleague Steve Sapienza and I did a series for PBS NewsHour in partnership with West African journalists on clean water access. We wanted to learn why the region struggled with water access, as well as showcase the work of African journalists to an American audience.

In Liberia, we worked with radio journalist Tecee Boley. As our long-distance planning progressed we became worried. Week after week, Tecee told us that her story was “no water.” But local news accounts said water was plentiful. Did she have the story right?

When we arrived, we found that she was spot on. There was indeed no water in vast areas of Monrovia, but the responsible official had been telling everyone, including the president, that there was. Tecee was the on-air correspondent for the NewsHour segment, and she published and broadcast her reporting in Liberia, too.

The grants that the Pulitzer Center awards are modest. Most are from $3,000 to $10,000, and cover only hard travel costs. In return, journalists line up major news outlets to agree to publish their work and (hopefully) pay them a fee.

The amounts may seem small, and when you think of the likes of The New Yorker, The Washington Post or NPR, they seem even smaller. But, the reality is that this money matters. To get an editor behind spending tens of thousands of dollars investigating why poor people don’t have clean water is a tall order. Their heart may be in it, but the bottom line tells them no.

The Pulitzer Center helps bridge that gap in news coverage from the bottom line up. Support for our work comes from foundations and individuals who share our belief in the power of independent storytelling. To maintain the integrity of our reporting in the eyes of news outlets, we have a strict editorial firewall between funders and journalists.

The business model for journalism in the digital age is still weak, and until news organizations are strong enough to support this work themselves, philanthropy is critical for keeping well-reported international stories in our news diet.

So why is all of this important? Look no further than the waves of desperate economic migrants crossing the Mediterranean for Europe, the metastases of ISIS across failing states, or the influx into the United States of Central American children fleeing drug violence. These events don’t come about randomly, and they are not inevitable. Our ambition at the Pulitzer Center is to report compellingly on such trends, or in the words of Joseph Pulitzer III, to “illuminate dark places and, with a deep sense of responsibility, interpret these troubled times.”

Soon after I returned from that reporting trip to West Africa, I decided to apply to medical school, to become directly involved in addressing health inequities. I am now a first-year student at the University of Miami. My hope is that my economics degree, global outlook from the Pulitzer Center, and the science and humanity of medicine will shape up into a life that I’d like to tell stories about.

Search pbsnewshour.org for “Liberia water” to see the report from Boley, Sapienza and Sawyer.

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About Author

Julian Sancton

Julian Sancton is an illustrator and writer based in New York. His work has appeared in Esquire, Vanity Fair, The New Yorker and Playboy.

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