Luther alum wins Pulitzer Prize

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Luther alum wins Pulitzer Prize

The Pulitzer Prize winning Salt Lake Tribune team including alum Erin Alberty (‘01) [center back].

The Pulitzer Prize winning Salt Lake Tribune team including alum Erin Alberty (‘01) [center back].

Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Tribune website

The Pulitzer Prize winning Salt Lake Tribune team including alum Erin Alberty (‘01) [center back].

Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Tribune website

Photo courtesy of Salt Lake Tribune website

The Pulitzer Prize winning Salt Lake Tribune team including alum Erin Alberty (‘01) [center back].

Emma Busch, Staff Writer

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Luther College alum Erin Alberty (‘01) and her colleagues at The Salt Lake Tribune were stunned when their investigation of sexual assault on Utah college campuses earned a Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting on April 10.

“I’m still in disbelief,” Alberty said. “None of us thought we would win a Pulitzer Prize. Our editors entered our work hoping for maybe a finalist mention. We didn’t write this as a prize entry. It wasn’t a neatly-packaged series. We didn’t even save most of these stories for Sunday publication, which is our big circulation day. We were urgently focused on learning about and showing to our readers what was happening at Utah’s colleges.”

The Salt Lake Tribune’s coverage focused primarily on two schools, Brigham Young University (BYU) and Utah State University (USU), where student concerns arose regarding the universities’ poor reponse to rape cases.

Alberty’s reports on BYU began in an effort to discover whether the university’s strict honor code had a negative impact on crime reporting. Among other things, BYU’s honor code requires its students to avoid “homosexual behavior” and requires men and women to stay out of each others’ houses during specific hours of the day.

“I had done preliminary reporting that showed some students were concerned that the school might punish a victim for honor code violations and that would prevent them from reporting it,” Alberty said. “But, I struggled to find crime victims to share their accounts.”

According to Alberty, it was difficult to report on this preliminary finding with no students to speak out about their experiences.

“That changed in April, when one student disclosed at a rape awareness forum on campus that she had been disciplined under the honor code as a result of reporting a rape,” Alberty said. “Then I was able to find many people making references to similar experiences on social media and through other networks of current and former students. I interviewed dozens who described being assaulted; some reported and were investigated, but many more did not report the assaults.”

Coverage increased once more students began to come forward, allowing Alberty and her colleagues to investigate further. By October of 2016, BYU announced plans to change its process of addressing sexual assault.

“When BYU said it would overhaul its process after several months of our stories, I thought we had succeeded in shedding light on the situation,” Alberty said.

BYU’s ties to the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints meant Alberty and the team of Salt Lake Tribune writers were unsure how their series would be recieved.

“[The church] is organized around a modern prophet and apostles who are believed to receive revelation from God.” Alberty said. “BYU is widely known in Utah as ‘The Lord’s University.’ It’s somewhat different from, say, Luther College, whose ties to the ELCA church are more relaxed. By contrast, there are a lot of Mormon structural and cultural factors at work in BYU’s policy decisions, and we weren’t sure our stories would resonate there.”

Photo courtesy of
Erin Alberty (‘01), member of Pultizer Prize-winning journalism team.

Despite her concerns about the effect the series would have on the campuses she wrote about, Alberty knew the stories needed to be written.

While at Luther, Alberty was a Chips staff member and worked in Luther’s media office. After graduating, she went abroad and taught English in China for two years. Alberty previously reported for The Saginaw News and The Houghton Daily News in Michigan before joining the Salt Lake Tribune team, where she has served as a reporter for ten years.

Emeritus Peter Scholl remembers Alberty as a vocal student and skilled writer and is not surprised by her accomplishments.

“Erin was in one of my Paideia I sections and at least one other class,” Scholl said. “She was a lively student and spoke up a lot. I remember that she was a terrific writer and I think for a time she wanted to join an MFA program after graduating. We used to have a three week unit on the history and culture of China in Paideia and maybe it was then I might have influenced her interest to teach English in China after graduation.”

Head of Library Operations and Digital Initiatives Librarian Ryan Gjerde (‘99) served as Managing Editor of Chips and remembers Alberty as a talented reporter.

“Staff writers back then were all volunteers, and at times it was a challenge to recruit and retain reporters,” Gjerde said. “I recall that Erin was one whom the section editors would fight over each week when assigning articles. Her stories were always well-researched and well-written. Personally, I’m a bit star-struck to realize I’ve edited the work of a Pulitzer Prize winner. Erin’s career serves as another great example of how a Luther education prepares us for the desire to confront big questions and seek truth.”

Alberty is proud of what she and her colleagues accomplished collaboratively, but remains focused on the well-being of the students that participated in their coverage.

“The people who participated in this story went through a lot, not just before, but as a result of participating in the stories. Since the Pulitzer announcement, I’ve heard from so many of them, and they’ve all said that they were happy about it, that they were glad our profession recognized these stories as important.”

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