What Do Pulitzer Prize Winners Mean for Businesses?

Pulitzer Prize-winning stories from the past two years have focused largely on exposing amoral behaviors among both government agencies and publicly traded companies, making it one of the few times each year when it may be best to stay out of the public eye.

Apr 17, 2014 at 1:12PM

The Pulitzer Prizes for Journalism were announced earlier this week, and like usual the stories that winners read like a year-end summary of current events. Feel-good reporting is absent from recent winners as stories have focused on the biggest news stories, which have a tendency to lean toward the negative. Publicly traded companies are far from exempt from being negatively exposed for questionable and immoral business practices, and Pulitzer Prize award-winning stories from the past two years give insight into major concerns for some of the largest corporations in America.

And the winner is...
Three of the Pulitzer Prize winners from this year wrote about issues that have direct inferences for and could directly affect major American corporations. At the heart of the Journalism Public Service award was invasion of privacy issues, at the core of the Investigative Reporting award was controversial insurance handling, and the Explanatory Reporting award centered on continued food stamp usage and implications on the ongoing financial circumstances of poverty-stricken Americans.

Likewise, 2013 Pulitzer Prize winners and finalists tackled morality issues of both Wal-Mart (NYSE:WMT) in its use of bribery to assert dominance in the Mexican market and of Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) and other technology companies opting to manufacture products internationally while at the same time utilizing morally questionable business practices.

Journalism remains a major informer and persuader of public opinion, and the Pulitzer Prizes have recently drawn attention to concerns that are directly or could be directly affiliated with established American corporations.

The winner is not...
The most notable corporations having received less-than-impressive exposure in past Pulitzer Prize-winning reports are Wal-Mart and Apple, though the moral issues brought to light by this year's award-winning works address broader industries. There is a difference in how the market and the public as a whole respond to general reporting affecting an entire industry versus focused reporting on a specific company, though the market has shown a tendency to make industrywide responses to positive and negative news reports about individual corporations within the industry. This is never clearer than during earnings season when poor earnings from an individual bank or solar company spur an industrywide sell-off.

The most publicized Pulitzer Prize winners of this year were the Guardian and the Jeff Bezos-owned Washington Post in their reporting of the Edward Snowden/NSA surveillance story. The story should bring to the forefront of the public attention privacy issues and violations in general, including those made by American technology corporations with whom the vast majority of U.S. citizens openly share their most intimate information.

Google (NASDAQ:GOOG) and Facebook (NASDAQ:FB) are among the tech giants who have been identified as corporations fully capable of abusing the massive amount of private information that they have collected. The very mission of Google to "organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful" has on its own raised suspicion among critics about privacy concerns. Facebook has likewise been criticized over privacy concerns ranging from the general sharing of member information to data mining accusations. A government invasion of privacy is ultimately more scandalous than an invasion of privacy by large corporations, but both are deserving of the public attention.

Last year's award-winning stories about Apple and Wal-Mart are clear reminders that corporations are not entirely in control of their own image. The effects of a diminished public image may not be directly measureable, but so long as journalistic recognition is paid to reporters exposing amoral behaviors, small and large corporations will not be immune to the consequences of their own ill behavior. When next year's Pulitzer Prize winners are announced, Google and Facebook are among a growing group of potentially controversial companies that will gladly take a rare step back from the limelight.

The takeaway
The announcement of the Pulitzer Prizes is a time when journalistic excellence can be rightfully recognized, and a time when the public is reminded of the importance of the printed word. It is also a time when the major events of the past year are remembered, which for the sake of American corporations is a rare time when greater exposure has fallbacks. Information is priceless, but for companies exercising questionable business practices, not all news is good news.

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Shamus Funk has no position in any stocks mentioned. The Motley Fool recommends Apple, Facebook, and Google-Class C Shares. The Motley Fool owns shares of Apple, Facebook, and Google-Class C Shares. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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