A powerful and painstaking investigation into the deadly fires that revealed deficiencies in Chicago’s building codes and the permanent scars left on the survivors brought the Chicago Tribune and the Better Government Association the highest award in journalism: the Pulitzer Prize.
“Failures Before the Fires,” a collaboration between Cecilia Reiss of the Tribune and Madison Hopkins of the BGA, was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting on Monday.
Published in April 2021, a nearly two-year investigation, thwarted by a pandemic, delved deeply into the data and then sympathetically and colorfully outlined the stories behind the figures, highlighting the current tragedy and the impact of local reporting.
“Any year for an information organization is exciting to receive the Pulitzer Prize, but to do such a quality job during such a turbulent year in our office is a great achievement,” said Mitch Pew, executive editor of the Tribune.
This is the 28th Pulitzer Prize for the Tribune and the first for the BGA, a centuries-old nonprofit news organization based in Chicago. The story was edited by Kaarin Tisue in the Tribune and David Kidwell of the BGA.
The Tribune and BGA joined forces in the project in November 2019. In March, during a pandemic, Reyes was tasked with covering the latest news, and the project was essentially postponed until the fall of 2020.
Then Reyes and Hopkins resumed efforts to verify the data, contact officials and talk to families who were devastated by the loss of loved ones as a result of tragic, preventable fires.
Cecilia Reyes, 28, is an investigative reporter who joined the Tribune in 2016. Reyes was born and raised in Mexico City, earned a bachelor’s degree in computer science from Columbia University in New York, and previously worked for Google Journalism and News Apps.
Reyes called the Pulitzer Prize “bitter,” appreciating the recognition for hours of hard work she shared with Hopkins, but still focused on the story itself, as well as survivors and people who lost loved ones.
“It’s a story about other people and things they shouldn’t have dealt with,” Reyes said. “I’m just thinking about a lot of really difficult conversations we’ve had with people, and a lot of pain, loss and things like that could have been prevented.”
Reyes and Hopkins have shown that at least 61 men, women and children have died in fires after Chicago officials were warned – often repeatedly – about serious fire safety problems in the buildings where they lived. Most of the victims were black. There were many children.
Reyes and Hopkins found that these tragedies were fatal to systemic deficiencies in Chicago’s construction program. Their reports revealed a confusing system of informal rules, outdated records and weak oversight that put landlords ’interests above tenants’ safety.
Journalists found that many failures in the city directly contributed to the deaths of people from the fire.
To draw these conclusions, Hopkins and Reiss studied all 140 fatal fires that occurred in homes in Chicago from 2014 to 2019, reviewing tens of thousands of pages of public documents.
One woman, Shamaya Coleman, lost four children in a fire in a building that she unknowingly had a long history of security concerns.
“These landlords should not be able to rent, buy, do anything if everything is not up to par,” Coleman told reporters. “There should be no exceptions for anyone, neither for the state, nor for the landlord. You are endangering other people’s lives, period. “
The investigation also showed that in a city covered by a long history of tragic fires, politicians repeatedly promised to improve the situation, but then did not comply. Political rhetoric about strict compliance has repeatedly given way to unfulfilled promises, diluted rules and refusal to reform.
One parent of a little girl who died in a fire has dedicated herself to working with the city council to create a system that would warn people about the dangers of safety when renting a property. It was only after he was contacted for the series that he learned that the ruling he had insisted on had been abandoned.
Shortly before the investigation was published, city officials resumed the case, making new efforts to identify unsafe housing in Chicago. But in a subsequent story, Reyes and Hopkins found that the new list of “building code bullying” excluded hundreds of facilities with dangerous security breaches.
To identify more effective possible corrections to Chicago’s failures, reporters reviewed safety rules in construction in the country’s 20 most populous cities.
They found that elsewhere officials had responded to the deaths by tightening housing inspections and introducing more effective law enforcement programs. Housing officials and other experts believe such measures significantly improve the safety of buildings.
“This is the highest award in journalism, but I remember that the problems we identified were not essentially solved by the city,” said David Grazing, president and CEO of the Association of Better Government. “The work is not done. Life is still in danger. And it will only renew our commitment to covering up for inaction and protecting lives from fires that the city can prevent. ”
Tissio, 53, editor of investigations at the Tribune since 2009 and a 25-year veteran of the newspaper, said Reyes and Hopkins’ efforts were even more remarkable in light of the logistical problems associated with the pandemic.
“I give them a lot of credit for going forward in this difficult time and achieving it despite this obstacle,” Tisza said.
Hopkins, who was an assistant investigator at the Chicago Tribune, earning a master’s degree from the School of Journalism Medil at Northwestern University in 2016, now works as a health reporter at Kansas City Beacon.
“Madison Hopkins is one of the most resourceful, persistent and organized reporters I have ever worked with,” Grazing said. “Once I got to know her and her work, I’d be surprised if she didn’t get Pulitzer.”
Reyes, who lives in the Rogers Park area, said the Pulitzer Prize-winning project required seven days a week when hard work began in the fall of 2020.
She said receiving the Pulitzer Prize for her first full-time job at the newspaper was “a great honor and somewhat incredible.” Work, she said, is the most rewarding.
“It’s incredible to be able to dig, report and talk to people,” Reyes said. “It takes a lot of endurance, but in the end, I can’t think of wanting to do anything else.”
The last time The Tribune won a Pulitzer Prize was in 2017, when E. Jason Wambsgans was awarded the top prize for art photography for “a wonderful depiction of a 10-year-old boy and his mother seeking to bring back a boy’s life after he survived the Chicago shooting.” .
In 2012, then-Tribune columnist Mary Schmich received the Pulitzer Prize for Comments.