Looking deeper, pushing change

Stephen Hobbs ’11 and his colleagues at South Florida Sun-Sentinel brought their care for the community to the front of their coverage of tragedy—earning the respect of grieving families, raising issues changed policies, and, ultimately, taking home American journalism’s greatest honor.

It was curiosity that led Stephen Hobbs ’11 into journalism. And it was curiosity led him to a job for the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, across the country from home. And, ultimately, it was curiosity that earned Hobbs and the Sentinel’s entire newsroom a Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for their reporting on the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida.

The tragedy began in February of 2018: Seventeen high school students and staffers died; more had the trajectory of their lives changed by injuries. The Sentinel’s newsroom committed itself, meticulously, to chipping away at the “how” and “why,” to find answers to the community’s pain and outrage.

On the day of the shooting at Stoneman Douglas, Hobbs was working as a data reporter for the Sentinel—still using skills he learned in the introductory class and advanced reporting classes he took with Senior Lecturer Barbara Kelley. He credits those classes—as well as the undergraduate core curriculum—for letting him explore the full spectrum of his interests and allowing him to discover their intersection: journalism.

Suddenly, the community he’d spent almost two years covering was thrown into a state of shock in the face of an unfathomable tragedy.

Hobbs and The Sentinel’s reporters mourned alongside parents, students, teachers—they too were members of the community. There were moments when the newsroom was exhausted and overwhelmed. Some of Hobbs’s colleagues, having just interviewed community members who had lost their children, grappled with dropping their own children off at school in the days following the shooting. Added to this stress was the competing presence of reporters from national newspapers including The New York Times.

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Stephen Hobbs ’11 in front of the Charleston Post and Courier. He reported as part of the South Florida Sun-Sentinel team recognized for its dedication to community with the Pulitzer Prize for Public Service for its work following a school shooting that left 17 dead. / Image courtesy Stephen Hobbs

A burning desire to ask why fueled the Sentinel’s newsroom: the staff saw an opportunity not just to cover the aftermath of the tragedy, but to look at the deeper issues the shooting had revealed in their community. Even after the national media coverage dwindled, the Sentinel remained, its full weight behind discovering the truth.

“The more we found out, the more we saw there were a lot of things that could have either prevented the shooting or made it less deadly,” Hobbs said. “We saw the opportunity to get to the bottom of what had happened—and why it had happened.”

Once more, Hobbs tapped into his curiosity. He reported on more than 30 stories about Parkland for the Sentinel, making crucial contributions to the coverage that eventually won a Pulitzer. The Sentinel unearthed failures by the school district and by the state of Florida that eventually sparked substantial change. High ranking officials, including the county’s acting sheriff at the time of the shooting, lost their jobs; Florida’s legislature raised the minimum age to purchase an AR-15, the kind of gun used, from 18 to 21; the district increased security at all of its schools.

The Pulitzer Prize for Public Service is considered an especially high honor. In a fairly unconventional gesture, two parents who lost children in the shooting in Parkland wrote a letter to the Pulitzer Committee commending the Sentinel for its coverage. The letter meant a lot to the newsroom, Hobbs said. Then to have the Sentinel actually receive the award – it was surreal to him. Over the phone, he listened to the awards ceremony—and the Sentinel’s response—from the newsroom of the Charleston Post and Courier, in South Carolina, where he began working this March.

For Hobbs and his former colleagues, the moment encompassed the full range of emotion. It had been an emotionally draining story to report, he says—visibly so, in the photos of his teary-eyed colleagues hugging in their newsroom after the award was announced.

“I heard this eruption of applause (over the phone)—there were all of these different emotions from people reacting to what had just happened,” he said. “I looked at the screen from the awards and it had a photo of one of our stories. When I saw that, I was like—this is real.”

For Hobbs, receiving the Pulitzer in the wake of the tragedy was a reminder of the important work that remains to be done in journalism. He acknowledges that the industry is struggling, but says he’ll do whatever he can to continually better himself as a journalist—accommodating his pursuit of curiosity in any form that might take.

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