Florida State University alumnus and Tampa Bay Times reporter Anthony Cormier accepted a Pulitzer Prize at a ceremony in New York City last week for his investigative reporting on Florida’s broken mental health system.
Cormier learned that he won the award last April, but receiving the prize offered a moment to reflect on his journey from an English student at FSU to Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist.
He earned the highest award in American journalism by immersing himself in the day-to-day realities of the state’s six main mental health hospitals. He discovered disturbing secrets there: staffing shortages, violence, neglect, abuse. Patient deaths.
Cormier and two colleagues pursued the story for more than a year, even when it was unclear what exactly they were uncovering. But they pushed forward one day at a time, making incremental progress and following leads to a larger picture. Their stubborn persistence to find the truth earned a Pulitzer Prize in Investigative Reporting.
“We tried to just move the ball down the field five yards at a time, 10 yards, get a first down this week,” Cormier said. “It’s really the only way to tackle the enormity of these things because you won’t be able to see the forest. You get lost in all the trees. So one at a time: ‘What do we need to learn this week? We need to learn how the budget process works, need to learn who were the people who signed off on this budget, who were the people in charge who made the cuts.’”
Cormier, along with Leonora LaPeter Anton of the Times, Michael Braga of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune and a team of researchers, studied state spending and discovered deep, recurring budget cuts in Florida’s mental health system. They detailed the consequences of those legislative choices in an investigation entitled, “Insane. Invisible. In danger.”
The series prompted change. Florida lawmakers went to work this year to start fixing systemic problems in the mental health system. They appropriated an extra $55 million toward that goal. Gov. Rick Scott signed legislation designed to improve treatment for people struggling with mental health problems and substance abuse.
Cormier, who earned his degree from Florida State in 2000, says he’s grateful for the opportunity to pursue important, difficult stories in a digital era when reporting is often focused more on clicks than quality.
“I’m grateful for the opportunity to do it. The Times is a great American newspaper and it believes in this type of journalism, as does the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, which partnered with us. They saw something that was important to the public and they decided that if not us, then who, and devoted the resources to finish it.”
Pulitzer Prizes are awarded in 21 categories covering journalism, books and music. Cormier’s trip to Columbia University in New York City was special, and while he won’t say this, it certainly is life changing professionally.
He says walking on stage to accept his Pulitzer Prize was very exciting and very humbling. In the moment, he remembered all those workdays when he just tried to “move the ball down the field” in an effort to shine a light on a troubled mental health system.
“It’s an appreciation of all of the things that led up to it. Getting the certificate is nice and part of the process, but I think you appreciate all the work that went into it before that.”
Cormier’s degree is in Creative Writing, not typically the path to a career in journalism, but the lessons he learned in those classes from outstanding professors prepared him well for his work as a reporter — a Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter.
“Writing is writing, I think,” Cormier said. “The same fundamentals that I learned from folks at the program, particularly Mark Winegardner, serve me well today. Build tension. Understand your characters. Active voice. Kill your -ly adverbs. Use only the most meaningful and revealing anecdotes.
“Creative writing to journalism, or the other way around, isn’t terribly original. Some of America’s most iconic authors — Mark Twain, Ernest Hemingway, Norman Mailer, Hunter Thompson — dabbled in the dark art of journalism.”
Three other writers with ties to Florida State have won a Pulitzer Prize. FSU graduate Adam Johnson won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 2013 for his novel, “The Orphan Master’s Son.” FSU English Prof. Robert Olen Butler won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1993 for his book, “A Good Scent from a Strange Mountain.” And late FSU professor Michael Shaara won the Pulitzer Prize in Fiction in 1975 for his book, “The Killer Angels.”