UK alumna, professor part of Pulitzer Prize-winning team at Cincinnati Enquirer


Investigative reporter James Pilcher (left) is a journalist in residence at the University of Kentucky and was part of the team that was responsible for Seven Days of Heroin, a project by the Cincinnati Enquirer (right). The project won 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting.

Bailey Vandiver

A UK alumna and a UK adjunct professor are part of a Cincinnati Enquirer reporting team that won the 2018 Pulitzer Prize for Local Reporting for its “Seven Days of Heroin” project.

Breaking news reporter Sarah Brookbank graduated from UK in 2015, and investigative reporter James Pilcher is a journalist in residence at UK.

This project documented the heroin epidemic from July 10 through July 16— a week that was “unexceptional by the dreary standards of what has become the region’s greatest health crisis,” the story reads. 

Brookbank said the Enquirer dedicated a lot of resources to this project, which was worked on by more than 60 reporters, photographers and videographers in addition to the Enquirer’s full-time heroin beat writer.

Brookbank said each staffer involved was given an assignment on each day of the week. On one day, she covered the drug court in a nearby Ohio county. On another day, she hung around the libraries because there have been problems with people overdosing in public places like libraries, she said.

For the rest of the week, she listened to the police scanner then asked for documents relating to the heroin-related incidents she heard about. This contributed to the data included in the project about how many overdoses and deaths occurred. 

Pilcher shadowed law enforcement officials during his reporting. He spent one day with the Drug Enforcement Administration in Cincinnati, during a huge operation to try to bring in a major drug dealer. The DEA thought this man had several pounds of heroin, but it turns out he had none.

“It was very early on in the whole thing… and it just set the tone for just how frustrated law enforcement was from the very beginning,” he said.

He spent another day with a drug dog, but that did not ultimately end up in the final project.

Pilcher was out of town on assignment when the announcement was made Monday. He and Enquirer photographer Liz Dufour watched the announcement in their hotel lobby, while Defour FaceTimed staffers back in the newsroom.

When they heard the news and reacted, “people are staring at us like we’re crazy,” he said.

Brookbank said she was already home from work for the day when she found out. After getting a Snapchat from her boss about waiting for the announcement to come, she checked Twitter and saw there that the Enquirer won the prize.

She said she appreciated that the Enquirer’s hard work was noticed “not just (by) people in Greater Cincinnati or northern Kentucky, but people everywhere.”

This is an important topic to her on a personal level because her aunt died this year of a heroin overdose.

“It’s really cool on a professional level and it’s cool on a personal level to know that the place I work for actually really cares,” she said.

This year’s Pulitzer Prizes have another connection to UK: Administrator Dana Canedy is also a UK alumna.

“What was really cool is that the woman who runs it, who announced it, had actually been at UK last semester, and I got to meet her, so it was neat seeing her up on screen,” Pilcher said of watching Canedy make the announcement.

Pilcher said UK’s many connections to the Enquirer’s win and to the Pulitzers is “another feather in our cap.”

“The fact that Sarah was part of it, I was part of it, the Pulitzer chairwoman was part of it, I think it speaks to the legacy and the ongoing quality that speaks to the UK School of Journalism,” he said.

During her time at UK, Brookbank was a news and features editor at the Kernel. She said it’s great to be one of the Kernel alumni who have gone on to do “amazing things.”

“UK’s not known as a journalism school, but that doesn’t stop us from turning out really amazing journalists who kick tons of ass,” she said. 

The entire list of 2018 Pulitzer winners can be found here.