Alumni Win Pulitzer and Peabody

Photo: surprised staffers in news room
UC Davis alumnus Matthias Gafni and fellow East Bay Times reporters Thomas Peele, Harry Harris, Erin Baldassari and David Debolt react as they learn of their Pulitzer Prize win for breaking news at their office in downtown Oakland, California, on Monday, April 10, 2017. The staff of the East Bay Times won journalism's highest honor for their coverage of the tragic Ghost Ship warehouse fire which killed 36 people in December 2016. (Jane Tyska/East Bay Times)

Two College of Letters and Science alumni who got their journalism starts at The California Aggie won journalism’s highest honors this year—a Pulitzer Prize and a Peabody Award. 

East Bay Times investigative reporter Matthias Gafni (B.A, English/rhetoric and communication, ’98) was a lead writer on a Pulitzer Prize-winning series of articles on Oakland’s deadly “Ghost Ship” warehouse fire. 

Michael Bott (B.A., international relations, ’07), an investigative producer for NBC Bay Area/KNTV, shared a Peabody Award for a series of reports on schools’ overreliance on police officers to discipline students.

Surprise win

In awarding East Bay Times the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Breaking News in April, the Pulitzer board cited the paper’s “relentless coverage of the ‘Ghost Ship’ fire, which killed 36 people at a warehouse party, and for reporting after the tragedy that exposed the city’s failure to take actions that might have prevented it.”

Gafni helped uncover that building inspectors had launched an investigation of illegal structures in the building just three weeks before the fire but had been unable to gain access. He also shared a byline on “The Last Hours of Oakland’s Ghost Ship Warehouse,” a narrative that takes readers inside the party-turned-tragedy.

Watching the Pulitzer Prize announcements online from the newsroom, Gafni and his colleagues were stunned to hear that they had won. “We didn’t even know we were a finalist,” he told The Davis Enterprise.

He is one of two UC Davis alumni on the East Bay Times news staff. Angela Ruggiero (B.A., communication/Italian, ’10) also has contributed to the paper’s continuing Ghost Ship coverage.

Broadcasting’s top prize

Photo: Bott holding prize
Michael Bott

The Peabody Prize-winning series on the misuse of school police officers followed two years of investigative reporting by Bott and colleagues at NBC Bay Area/KNTV.

The judges cited the team’s “tenacious efforts and hard-earned findings in uncovering a disturbing trend in student civil rights violations and for its contribution to the larger conversation about rebuilding trust between police and their communities.”

Bott began digging through data on student arrests at San Francisco Bay Area schools after learning about disproportionately high rates of arrests nationwide for African American students and children with disabilities.

The series, “Arrested at School: Criminalizing Classroom Misbehavior,” found a lack of guidelines and school-focused training for school police officers. One report told the story of a 13-year-old autistic boy who was arrested for vandalism after etching his initials onto a sidewalk at his San Jose school.

The investigation inspired policy reform efforts both at the state and national level.

Kathleen Holder, content strategist in the UC Davis College of Letters and Science