Latinas Silvia Foster-Frau and Arelis Hernández Win 2024 Pulitzer Prize in Journalism

graphic that highlights Latina journalists: Silvia Foster-Frau and Arelis Hernández, winners of the Pulitzer Prize for journalism

Silvia Foster-Frau and Arelis Hernández (both of Puerto Rican descent) received the 2024 Pulitzer Prize in the National Reporting category in a groundbreaking win for Latinas in journalism. They earned this honor for their, as the Pulitzer Board put it, “sobering examination of the AR-15 semi-automatic rifle, which forced readers to reckon with the horrors wrought by the weapon often used for mass shootings in America.”

The announcement of this Pulitzer Prize win not only celebrates the outstanding achievements of Foster-Frau and Hernández but also highlights the invaluable contributions Latinas can make when given the opportunity to succeed. Not only in journalism and literature but also in many other fields.

Foster-Frau and Hernández are not the only Latino names on the list of 2024 Pulitzer Prize winners. There’s also Brandon Som in the Poetry category for his work “Tripas: Poems,” Cristina Rivera Garza in the Memoir or Autobiography category for her book “Liliana’s Invincible Summer: A Sister’s Search for Justice,” and Médar de la Cruz in the Illustrated Reporting and Commentary category for his work “The Diary of a Rikers Island Library Worker,” published in The New Yorker.

Foster-Frau and Hernández: Two Journalism Powerhouses

Silvia Foster-Frau and Arelis Hernández have established themselves as forces to be reckoned with in the journalism space. They both bring extensive experience to the table, as well as strong voices shaped by their unique trajectories. Foster-Frau's journalism journey is defined by deep dives into issues of multiculturalism and demographic changes in the United States.

Beginning her career at the San Antonio Express-News, she laid a solid foundation for her impactful reporting on immigration and border affairs. Her transition to the Washington Post in 2021 further solidified her position as a leading voice on these issues. She has won many accolades throughout her career, including the NAHJ Elaine Rivera Civil Rights and Social Justice Award in 2022. Her work mainly focuses on how local, state, and federal governments serve the population and on examining the effects of the evolving racial, ethnic, and cultural demographics in the U.S.

Portrait of Latina journalist Silvia Foster-Frau under The Washington Post logo, captured within the newspaper's office space.Photo shared by silviafosterfrau on Instagram

Hernández's career started as a Metro Intern at Star News in 2007, covering police and writing enterprise stories. She joined the Washington Post in 2014, where she has covered a range of topics, including hurricanes and mass shootings. She even spent time in Venezuela and Puerto Rico, providing insights into politics, culture, and social movements. Hernández has also won many accolades for her work, including the Freedom Forum/ASNE Award for Distinguished Writing on Diversity and the second prize at the World Press Photo Award for Innovative Storytelling for her project “Sin Luz: Life without Power,” which was also nominated for an Emmy Award in 2018.

Together, Foster-Frau and Hernández use the power of journalism to shed light on important issues, challenge established perspectives, and try to drive meaningful change. It’s noteworthy that in a country with an estimated 64 million Latinos, only 12.6% of journalists are Latino, according to a Journalist Demographics and Statistics report conducted by Zippia in 2021. In 2023, a survey by the National Association of Hispanic Journalists (NAHJ) revealed that only 13% of reporters and 12% of editors are Latino.

In the Washington Post newsroom that lays claim to Pulitzer prize-winning journalism only 6.1% of employees are Latino, according to their 2023 Workforce Demographics report. While the percentage of Latino employees helping shape the news at the Washington Post has increased from 4% in 2018, 6.1% is still a tragic number considering that nearly a million Latinos live in the Washington Metro area alone. These drastically low numbers underscore how extreme Latino underrepresentation currently is in news journalism.

Foster-Frau and Hernández’s work is impressive, but their contributions to journalism serve double duty. They elevate and inform the public discourse on important societal issues and are also a source of inspiration for aspiring journalists, especially Latinas, who don’t have ample mentors and examples, yet want to dedicate their lives to amplifying information, ideas, and perspectives that can change society for the better.

A Closer Look at Their AR-15 Examination

Titled “Terror on Repeat,” Foster-Frau and Hernández’s award-winning report was published in the Washington Post in November 2023 as part of their “American Icon” series. The report provides an oral history and review of 11 mass shootings from 2012 to 2023, offering a detailed account of the devastation that AR-15s cause. Based on extensive research, interviews, and analysis, the report establishes AR-15s as the most-used weapon in mass killings and how its destructive effects are often kept from the public eye.

Luz Media connected with Foster-Frau via email for a couple of questions, and when asked why it was important for the team to make this report an oral history, she stated, "Our piece 'Terror on repeat' took a look at 11 mass shootings where a gunman was wielding an AR-15 style rifle over the span of 11 years. What we found was an overwhelming number of similarities between them — a repeating pattern — in the unraveling of the shootings, the accounts from survivors, and the scenes of utter devastation in the shootings’ wake. We decided to weave together the stories of all these shootings into one, using never-before-seen images from the scenes of mass shootings in America in the hopes of furthering the public’s understanding of the uniqueness of the AR-15 and the horrors that a growing number of Americans have experienced in recent years."

The report itself states, “The impact [of AR-15s] is often shielded by laws and court rulings that keep crime scene photos and records secret. Journalists do not typically have access to the sites of shootings to document them. Even when photographs are available, news organizations generally do not publish them, out of concern about potentially dehumanizing victims or retraumatizing their families.”

Seeking to bring that impact to the forefront, the report, self-described as “the most comprehensive account to date of the repeating pattern of destruction wrought by the AR-15,” then takes readers through the entire process of AR-15-related incidents. Including the initial chaos of gunfire during the mass shootings, the unfolding of the tragedy as victims start falling in the gunman’s wake, and the aftermath of the devastation witnessed by first responders and felt by victims’ families.

Overall, the extensive article paints a vivid and shocking picture of how shootings transform “a seemingly safe, familiar place [...] into a hellscape of chaos, destruction, and mass death.” Throughout the article, they provide quotes from interviewed survivors and show unblurred crime scene photos of the incidents, including never-before-seen images of the Robb Elementary School shooting in 2022, and the First Baptist Church shooting in 2017.

Pulitzer Prize winner on the AR-15 as an 'America icon' | ¡Nosotros!

The report is a sobering, impactful, and important piece of work that provides much-needed perspective. It seeks to advance the public’s understanding of mass killings while respecting the families and communities that have been directly affected, giving them a space to speak about their experiences and showing the public the true face of devastation. By turning the spotlight on the often obscure side of AR-15 shootings, Foster-Frau, Hernández, and the Washington Post staff invite readers to consider the “broader pattern of violence.”

When we asked Foster-Frau what this Pulitzer Prize means to her and her career, she shared, "What I find myself feeling often is pride in my younger self — back when achievements like working at The Washington Post and winning a Pulitzer seemed like very far away, unreachable dreams. I also am so thankful to the Pulitzer committee for recognizing the importance of this work and the risks we took in this kind of reporting - I hope it encourages more people to read it. Most of all, I am thankful for all the people impacted by mass shootings who helped bring this story to light - it takes an incredible amount of courage to share your darkest moments and feelings with a reporter. They share in any of the accolades or response these stories receive because they wouldn’t be possible without them."

Latinos and the Pulitzer Prize in Journalism

Only a handful of Latinos have won a Pulitzer Prize since the establishment of these annual awards in 1917. In 2016, a report on the first 100 years of the Pulitzer Prize revealed that 84% of winners were white men and only 16% were women. The first Latino to win a Pulitzer Prize was novelist Oscar Hijuelos in 1990, in the Fiction category, for his work “The Mambo Kings Play Songs of Love.” The first Latina to win a Pulitzer Prize was Liz Balmaseda of The Miami Herald in the Commentary category, in 1993, for her commentary on Haiti’s political and social conditions, and her columns about Cuban Americans.

When it comes to journalism, Latinos have won in a variety of categories throughout the years, mostly as part of teams. For example, Ruben Vives was part of The Los Angeles Times team that won the 2011 Pulitzer Prize in Public Service with their “exposure of corruption in the small California city of Bell.” In 2013, Narciso Contreras was part of the Associated Press team to win in the Breaking News Photography category.

As for Latina women, Sonia Nazario of the Los Angeles Times won the Pulitzer Prize in Public Service in 2003 for her report on a “Honduran boy's perilous search for his mother who had migrated to the United States.” More recently, in 2022, Maria Hinojosa was part of the Futuro Media and PRX staff that won the Pulitzer Prize in Audio Reporting, for the podcast “Suave.”

The bottom line is that only a few Latina journalists have had the honor to win a Pulitzer Prize for their work in 107 years. This makes Silvia Foster-Frau and Arelis Hernández’s achievement in 2024 that much more impressive and significant for Latinas in journalism and the Latino community at large.