Ed Yong, keynote speaker for the 2020 Tanner Forum on Social Ethics, recently won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting. Yong, a science journalist for The Atlantic, was recognized for his in-depth series covering the COVID-19 pandemic.
Yong’s Pulitzer-winning pieces ranged from March to December 2020 and covered topics from the struggles of health care workers, the science of the virus and the political polarization of the pandemic in the U.S.
“Other countries that have much fewer resources than we have brought this disease to heel when the U.S. let it run out of control,” Yong said during the virtual keynote event last fall.
The Tanner Forum on Social Ethics is a yearly event held at Salt Lake Community College which hosts an afternoon event for students and an evening event for the broader community.
Danielle Susi-Dittmore, who recently moved into the role of community engagement leadership coordinator for the Thayne Center, was working as the art gallery and event coordinator when SLCC selected Yong as the keynote speaker.
Susi-Dittmore noted that a committee typically starts looking at candidates for the keynote speaker in January, which is about 10 months in advance. The committee had no inclination of just how relevant Yong would end up being in terms of his work.
“We had chosen Ed early in 2020 and the pandemic hadn’t yet begun. It’s a bit eerie, to be honest, but I am so grateful we were able to connect with him and learn from him,” Susi-Dittmore remarked. “We always want someone who is somewhat of an expert in their field, and in a field that is relevant to social ethics. As a journalist, and especially as a journalist covering a global pandemic, there was lots to talk about in terms of ethics, doing the right thing, making the right choices about what to report on … Ed fit all of these boxes for us.”
Due to the pandemic, both the student event and evening keynote address shifted to virtual formats which, according to Susi-Dittmore, allowed for more students to attend.
Melissa Hardy, assistant professor of biology, is a long-time fan of Yong’s work, and Yong was on her list of candidates for a few years.
“I’ve assigned some of his work in my biology classes, including an absolutely prescient piece from 2018 which speculates about the next global pandemic. It was perfect timing that we settled on him during the COVID-19 pandemic,” Hardy said.
Hardy also acted as moderator during the daytime event which was geared to speaking with and answering questions from students.
“Ed was wonderful at engaging with students and speaking directly to their questions and concerns,” Hardy remarked. “He gave some great advice to students interested in writing at the end, and was extremely relatable, especially when talking about the fatigue of living through the pandemic.”
Hardy, who has followed Yong’s work for some time, was not surprised when he was honored with a Pulitzer Prize and noted his extraordinary range of expertise.
“He can write humorous and lighthearted articles about weird biology stuff like hagfish slime, he can write pieces that will break your heart, such as his piece on extinction of native Hawaiian snails, and he can synthesize incredibly complex problems from disparate fields into understandable writing, which is evident in his amazing coverage of the pandemic,” Hardy said.
Regarding Yong’s win, Susi-Dittmore stated, “I don’t think I can say I was surprised. Ed was and is doing incredibly important and relevant journalism, related to the pandemic and to the larger psychological effects of the pandemic on all of us.”
Susi-Dittmore continued, “I’m delighted that we were able to have him be part of one of the most volatile and unprecedented years, particularly for the great knowledge and insight he brought to our community. It’s clear he had quite an impact on the Pulitzer committee as well!”
According to The Atlantic, Yong’s article “How the Pandemic Will End” is one of the most-read pieces in the publication’s history. Yong’s Pulitzer Prize marks the first such win for The Atlantic.