Jennifer Valentino-DeVries Part of Pulitzer Prize-Winning Team
Journalist Jennifer Valentino-DeVries, like many UT alumni of the early 2000’s, still credits a certain football player with providing one of her favorite college moments.
“Ricky Williams broke the college rushing record, and I was at that game,” said Valentino-DeVries, referring to the 1998 game against Texas A&M. “I've never heard such a loud sound at the stadium when it was clear he broke a tackle and was going to break the record on this play.”
Twenty-four years after this monumental game, Valentino-DeVries has an achievement of her own in journalism, as part of a New York Times reporting team awarded the 2022 Pulitzer Prize for national reporting.
Pulitzer judges said The New York Times series, “Deadly Police Encounters,” won the award “for an ambitious project that quantified a disturbing pattern of fatal traffic stops by police, illustrating how hundreds of deaths could have been avoided and how officers typically avoided punishment.”
Valentino-DeVries was The Daily Texan managing editor in 1999-2000, but as a Plan II honors and English major, she did not start out thinking about a career in journalism.
“I went to a very small school that didn't have a high school newspaper,” she said about growing up in San Antonio. “But I went to work at The Daily Texan as a hobby, and I loved it. I loved the people I was working with, they were excited about changing the world for the better but also cynical, and I thought it was a good mix of attitudes.”
She said while she never actively fantasized about winning a Pulitzer, she knew there was a possibility since many past winners who are UT alumni would frequently come to speak on campus. She is the 33rd person affiliated with UT-Austin to win a Pulitzer.
Valentino-DeVries is part of The Times’ investigative reporting team. Following the 2020 killing of George Floyd at the hands of Minneapolis police officers, a Times editor wanted to find out how many people had died while being arrested or in police custody while specifically witnessed or recorded saying the words, “I can’t breathe.” A quick Google search returned only about eight results. The team was hoping to find at least five more, but they ended up finding over 70. Valentino-DeVries and her colleagues had a story.
“When you see something that is happening over and over,” she said. “It's important to document it as a systemic problem, and not just a single event.”
From the investigations, Valentino-DeVries discovered many of the deaths in question were being blamed on the carrier condition for sickle cell anemia, a disease most commonly affecting people of African descent in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
“I was just shocked that this niche set of cases would have so many people who supposedly died of this benign condition,” she said. “There were a lot of experts testifying in the trials or medical examiner's citing certain research that seemed to be questionable in terms of the size of the research and the way the studies were conducted.”
With every new discovery, new waves of emotions washed over her. But knowing her job was an important way to react and counter the injustice, Valentino-DeVries said she was able to keep the emotions from affecting her in a way that made her unable to do her job.
“You want to have human emotions and understand where people are coming from,” she said. “That's fine as long as it's not preventing you from conveying that information to the public.”
To decompress, Valentino-DeVries spends time with her two children, aged 5 and 7.
Before working at The Times, Valentino-Devries interned at the Associated Press in Thailand, was as a copy editor at the Houston Chronicle, then joined an investigative team at The Wall Street Journal, where they won the George Loeb award for business reporting, an award from the Overseas Press Club of America and were finalists for the Pulitzer Prize in explanatory journalism.
Valentino-DeVries said while being on an investigative beat leaves a reporter with fewer bylines than colleagues on daily beats, she said both sides have their pros and cons.
Journalists on a daily beat are more comfortable with their subjects and are able to develop an expertise over time, where words just flow out during the writing process, she said. But with daily beats, there is usually no time to step back and look at the bigger picture more analytically, she added
“But when you don't have a daily beat, writing is more of a struggle, because you’re so out of practice,” Valentino-DeVries said. “Writing just becomes easier by practice.”
Valentino-DeVries is the second person to win a Pulitzer from UT-Austin’s class of 2000. Lisa Falkenberg, the Houston Chronicle’s vice president/editor of opinion and a Journalism alum, won a Pulitzer in 2015 for commentary. This year, she and her Chronicle editorial team won a Pulitzer in editorial writing for the series “The Big Lie.”