KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
The Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism were announced yesterday. The prestigious award was given out for coverage of the Boston Marathon bombing, also stories on coal miners and photos of a terrorist attack in Kenya.
And as NPR's Mandalit del Barco reports, also singled out was coverage of the leaking of top secret government documents.
MANDALIT DEL BARCO, BYLINE: This year's Pulitzer Prize for Public Service rewarded news coverage about government spying based on illegal leaks from former National Security Agency contractor Edward Snowden. The award went to two winners, the U.S. website of the British publication The Guardian and The Washington Post. Barton Gellman was the lead reporter for The Post coverage.
BARTON GELLMAN: Our publication of material that Snowden gave us was our judgment that Snowden did the right thing by telling us what he told.
BARCO: This is Gellman's third Pulitzer. He says he was initially surprised by Snowden's leak.
GELLMAN: Like any reporter, I get a lot of crazy talk in my inbox. And when someone writes in without giving a name and says, I've got all sorts of secrets about the NSA, there's a raised eyebrow or two.
BARCO: With Snowden formally charged with espionage, Gellman says The Washington Post faced a lot of pushback and criticism for deciding to publish and analyze the documents.
GELLMAN: There have been claims that we were doing more harm than good. We obviously don't believe that. What we've highlighted is when the government is collecting, on a large scale, information about its own people or suspicion-less information about people around the world...
BARCO: The NSA reporting sparked comparisons to coverage in the 1970s of the so-called Pentagon Papers, top secret documents confirming how a series of U.S. administrations deceived the public about the Vietnam War.
ROY HARRIS: What is so similar about them is that we've got secret documents that the government did not want released.
BARCO: Former Wall Street Journal editor and reporter Roy Harris wrote a book about the Pulitzer's public service award. He recalls how in 1971 the New York Times published and analyzed information leaked by military analyst Daniel Ellsberg.
HARRIS: The Nixon administration wanted them to stop publishing and the newspaper decided to stop publishing until they had a court ruling.
BARCO: Harris says other newspapers continued reporting on the documents and eventually the Supreme Court ruled in favor of the New York Times. The newspaper went on to win a Pulitzer for its reporting on the Pentagon Papers, but not before the Pulitzer board went back and forth over whether or not to award them.
HARRIS: There was great concern that the New York Times was perhaps contributing to illegal activity by publishing stolen documents. The board had a huge debate about this. Some newspaper executives back then and even today are pretty conservative people. They play it safe. And there were voices there saying, you know, we shouldn't be honoring this kind of work.
BARCO: After winning the award yesterday, The Washington Post's Gellman says unlike Daniel Ellsberg, Edward Snowden unmasked himself as the whistleblower, and there were other differences.
GELLMAN: The risks were greater back in the days of the Pentagon Papers. The Nixon administration threatened The Post itself, as a company, with felony prosecution. That could've destroyed this newspaper and there's been no threat nearly on that scale against the NSA coverage.
BARCO: Other Pulitzer Prizes this year went to the staff of The Boston Globe for covering the Boston Marathon bombings. Chris Hamby of the Center for Public Integrity won for his reports on coal miners with black lung disease. David Philipps of the Colorado Springs Gazette was celebrated for his series on combat vets being denied benefits and two New York Times photographers got Pulitzers, Josh Haner for documenting the recovery of one of the Boston bombing victims and Tyler Hicks won for his pictures of the terrorist attack unfolding in front of him at a shopping mall in Kenya.
Mandelit Del Barco, NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.