A conversation with Pulitzer Prize winner Martha Mendoza

by Weng Cheong

March 1, 2019

The AP journalist spoke on the rewards and challenges of international investigative journalism

Martha Mendoza
Two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Martha Mendoza spoke at the Newhouse School Feb. 21.

“There are many people who often don’t have the resources to be heard,” two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Martha Mendoza said during her talk Feb. 21 at the Newhouse School. “That’s the job of a journalist—to find them and tell their stories.”

Mendoza earned her first Pulitzer Prize in 2000 for exposing the No Gun Ri massacre, in which American troops killed civilians fleeing from what became North Korea in the 1950s. The U.S. military and South Korean government denied the incident for 50 years, but Mendoza and her reporting team were able to find evidence of the massacre by researching at the National Archives and tracing the coordinates of military units.

“When looking at these public documents, you have to look for patterns and outliers,” she said.

Magazine, newspaper and online journalism graduate student Michaela Greer asked Mendoza how she prioritizes and highlights the voices in her pieces.

Mendoza said that being transparent with her interviewees and being sensitive when asking about subjects related to trauma is crucial.

“To get people to tell their stories, you have to be patient and let them have control of the narrative,” she said.

Mendoza spent four months reporting on the No Gun Ri massacre, but it was 10 months before her story was published. Mendoza said there was a huge hesitancy by the publisher and the team to call out the Pentagon and publicize an incident that the U.S. and South Korean government had denied for so long. Nevertheless, Mendoza and her team made the decision that getting the story out was worth the risk of losing their jobs.

When asked to give a quick run-down of her daily reporting routine, Mendoza said she had days where she’d call 40 or 50 people. Though finding sources can be hard, Mendoza reminded students that all they need is one source that can lead them to more potential sources; Mendoza got her source for the No Gun Ri story on the 29th call.

In 2016, Mendoza and her team at The Associated Press won a second Pulitzer Prize for the series, “Seafood from Slaves.” The team’s investigation not only exposed the mistreatment of workers in the Southeast Asian fishing industry, but also prompted a police investigation that set free over 2,000 enslaved men and led to a dozen criminal arrests.

Mendoza is currently covering immigration and family separation along the Texas border. She was particularly drawn to stories about children being separated from their parents.

“I started reaching out to lawyers, social workers and pediatricians—pretty much anyone who can speak out without losing their jobs,” she said. Through her investigation, Mendoza is among the first people who found three “tender age” shelters set up in Texas that housed children detainees under the age of 12. She is still reporting on this beat and hopes that it can lead to a change in immigration policy.

As graduating students asked for advice on applying for editorial and reporting jobs, Mendoza urged them to always show up on time, stay humble in the workplace and take the initiative to pitch ideas.

“Know about something that’s not just journalism,” she said. “Try to understand the world you live in, whether it be politics or the environment.”

Weng Cheong is a magazine, newspaper and online journalism graduate student at the Newhouse School.