Alumna receives Pulitzer’s newest prize, for audio reporting
By Joe Wilensky
Molly O’Toole ’09, an immigration and security reporter with the Los Angeles Times, is one of the recipients of the inaugural Pulitzer Prize for audio journalism.
O’Toole was part of the “This American Life” reporting team that produced the November 2019 episode “The Out Crowd.” The episode explored the impacts of the Trump administration’s “Remain in Mexico” asylum policy, which stipulates that asylum-seekers be returned to Mexico to wait for U.S. court hearings rather than being allowed to remain in the country, which had been the practice under previous administrations.
O’Toole shares the prize with Emily Green, a freelancer from Vice News, and the staff of “This American Life.”
O’Toole’s chapter of the radio program and podcast is titled “Goodbye, Stranger,” which she reported on and produced as a collaboration with the Los Angeles Times. In it, she speaks with U.S. asylum officers charged with implementing the new policies; these officers found the new rules immoral and illegal, and counter to their oaths to the U.S. Constitution.
The new Pulitzer Prize in journalism for audio reporting, according to the Pulitzer Prize Board, recognizes “a distinguished example of audio journalism that serves the public interest, characterized by revelatory reporting and illuminating storytelling.”
For O’Toole, who’s based in Washington, D.C., the “This American Life” episode represented her first real foray into in-depth radio or audio storytelling. She found that the medium added compelling strengths and depths to her reporting.
“I’ve always reported on immigration policy and national security policy,” she said, “but what I aim to do is really measure the impact of that policy on real people, on real people’s lives. And you try and capture their voices the best that you can – in words, both yours and theirs.
“But what’s so amazing that you can do with radio is you can literally capture their words,” she said.
This was particularly powerful when she spoke with individual officers in the federal asylum corps who were struggling, emotionally and psychologically, “with this impossible choice they had to make between implementing this policy that they believed was wrong, both ethically and legally, or keeping their jobs, their livelihood, their careers and their future plans,” she said.
Also aided by the audio storytelling format, she said, was communicating the experience of the refugee camps that have sprouted up along the border in Mexico as a direct result of the new U.S. policies.
“It’s so hard to re-create the experience of those camps, and really the experience of asylum seekers and migrants right now – to re-create that in words,” she said. “So being able to deliver the sounds of those camps, and to let people there speak for themselves, on both sides of the policy, was something so cool that really only this medium could do.”
O’Toole, who majored in English as an undergraduate, said Cornell was where she dug into writing, describing amazing professors in the College of Arts and Sciences’ English department and “wonderful courses in international relations and government; all of that has informed the work that I do.” But “everything I learned about journalism, and really about life, came from the Cornell Daily Sun,” she said.
Graduating during the 2008-09 recession, O’Toole wanted to learn more about foreign policy and international relations, and went on to New York University, where she got a dual master’s degree in international relations and journalism. She went on to work as a politics reporter at the Atlantic’s Defense One, and worked as a senior reporter at Foreign Policy, where she covered the 2016 election and the Trump administration. She has covered issues around migration and security from Mexico, Central America, the Middle East, West Africa and South Asia.
Noting that journalism as an industry has been struggling for a long time, O’Toole said reporters don’t talk enough about how hard the job can be.
“I feel very lucky to do the job that I do and to do it for the L.A. Times,” she said. “But especially, the exhaustion of the 24/7 news cycle – [President] Trump, for better or worse, has really learned to maximize that sort of new metabolism that journalism has taken on in this digital age. And the emotional and psychological toll [of] some of these really tough subjects isn’t easy.”
On receiving the Pulitzer, O’Toole said: “Obviously, it’s pretty incredible to have this affirmation. To have this story in particular be honored in this category – because people, both asylum seekers and the asylum officers, are really speaking in their own words – to have that kind of recognition given to them, it helps make it worthwhile.”