Pulitzer Prize winner Stephen Hobbs '11 reflects on the emotional toll of covering the Parkland school shooting and how SCU influenced his journalism career.
When an Uber driver dropped former student Nikolas Cruz off at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in the affluent South Florida suburb of Parkland on Valentine's Day in 2018, one of the country's deadliest school shootings was set in motion. In less than 10 minutes, the 19-year-old killed 17 students and staff members and injured 17 more.
The journalists at the South Florida Sun Sentinel fanned out to cover the shooting and its aftermath. Stephen Hobbs, a 2011 graduate who majored in Communication and Political Science, was one of them. He and his colleagues chronicled the lives of those lost, captured the anguish of those left behind, and exposed the failings by school and law enforcement officials before and after the rampage.
The Sun Sentinel earned the 2019 Pulitzer Prize for public service — generally considered the top honor in all of journalism — for its coverage of the tragedy.
Hobbs, an all-american water polo player at SCU, discusses the emotional toll of covering such a horrific event, how his experiences at SCU influenced his career, and what the Pulitzer Prize means to him.
It can be a devastating experience to even read about a school shooting, let alone report on one. How do you approach a tragedy like this as a journalist?
It affected the whole community in such an awful way. It was hard for all of us in the newsroom because we're part of that community. But as journalists, we have an obligation to say "Okay, this horrible thing happened. Let's try and find out why it happened." And I think we fulfilled that obligation. And while we continued to grieve and think about the people who were deeply affected by this shooting, we used it as an opportunity to explore it in a sustained, in-depth way.
You and the other journalists at the Sun Sentinel produced nearly two dozen in-depth stories and editorials about the shooting. Perhaps the most striking is a precise timeline of events augmented with surveillance videos, audio, maps, and photos entitled "Unprepared and Overwhelmed."
We were able to break it down second by second, minute by minute and examine the response of law enforcement and school officials. You can really get a sense of just how much confusion there was. We don’t know if that affected whether or not anyone lived or died that day, but it does show that there were delays in terms of attempting to get people help after the shooting.
You grew up in Walnut Creek and your parents are both educators. How did they influence your career path?
My parents have always been interested in how things work. Reading was always huge. They put a lot of books in front of me. A lot of sports books, but they weren’t just books about athletes. They were about larger issues, interests, and politics.
At Santa Clara, you excelled in a sports reporting course in the Communication Department taught by George Dohrmann, a Pulitzer Prize winning investigative journalist. How did that class influence you?
That was the first time I ever had the idea of being a journalist and a writer. I wanted to be a sports broadcaster before that. I’ve always been someone who is interested in the story behind the scenes. I love reading and storytelling. When he presented us with some great profiles or columns or investigative reporting, I saw that people could write their thoughts, breathe metaphorically, and tell a story while digging into important issues. That class was the beginning of my journalism career path.
You were gravitating toward journalism at a time when the industry was struggling mightily. Reporters were getting laid off. Papers were closing. It wasn't exactly a secure career path?
George never said the job was going to be easy. But he also never said I couldn't do it. I think he recognized the passion and interest I had in it and became a great mentor inside and outside of class. He was always honest, up front, and encouraging.
These journalism courses had a big influence on you, but they were just one part of your overall Santa Clara experience. What else prepared you for life after graduation.
Thankfully, I was not siloed in a specific aspect of learning and that gave me a broad base of knowledge. I took the time to think about how could I use my classes to become a better citizen of the world.
Any specific classes that stand out?
I was able to do a lot of different things and be exposed to a lot of really important classes at Santa Clara, but some of my favorite classes were random. I had two great political philosophy classes with Peter Minowitz where we read texts from Socrates and Plato, digging back deep into the minds of these foundational figures in politics. I also had an ethics class with Brian Buckley that included readings from Marcus Aurelius and Aristotle. And one of my favorites was a comparative politics class with Eric Hansen focused on China, India, and Mexico. I'm not writing about any of those places now, but it was just a great opportunity to learn.
By the time the Pulitzer winners were announced, you had moved on to work at the Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C. How did you find out your old team had won?
I was sitting at my desk in the back of the newsroom. In one ear, I had the stream of the Pulitzer announcement from New York, and in the other, I was on a conference call listening to my former colleagues waiting for the announcement in Florida. I heard them just kind of erupt. It is a little bit of a cliché, but I didn’t believe it. It all just hit at that moment.
Over the years, I’ve looked at the Pulitzer website so many times and read the work of the winners. I have strived to produce stories that would one day be on there. So the weirdest thing has been going to that website and being able to see work that has my name on it. That’s really just the most surprising thing and will probably take the longest time to really set in.