Cornelia B. Grumman '85

Getting Her Opinions in Print
March 31, 2004

Cornelia B. Grumman calls herself "an accidental editorial writer." But the Pulitzer Prize she received in 2003 for her work at the Chicago Tribune has a lot more to do with passion than with chance.

Grumman won newspaper journalism's most prestigious honor by calling for death-penalty reform in a series of editorials described by contest judges as "powerful" and "freshly challenging."

A public-policy major at Duke who earned her master's at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government, Grumman has found in journalism a fruitful intersection between her academic interests and her attraction to writing. Since joining the Tribune's editorial board in 2000, she has focused primarily on social policy, education, juvenile justice, and the death penalty.

"If you care about social justice or justice issues in general, it's a really good business to be in,'' she says. "We're sort of paid to be idealists, to think about how things should be and compare them to how they really are."

Grumman enrolled at Duke with a far different dream--a career in hotel and restaurant management. She had even attended cooking school in Paris to prepare. But professional journalists she met at Duke through the DeWitt Wallace Center's Visiting Media Fellows program persuaded her to refashion her ambitions. After graduating, she became a reporter for the Raleigh News & Observer. Beginning in 1989, she worked in China as a stringer for The Washington Post, covering the student democracy movement that unfolded in Tiananmen Square.

By 1994, Grumman had returned to her home state of Illinois as a reporter for the Tribune. In the years that followed, she became increasingly intrigued by death-penalty reform. She witnessed a double execution as a reporter and closely read the investigative reports of her Tribune colleagues, who turned up major flaws in the state's death-penalty system. Ultimately, the governor of Illinois ordered a moratorium on executions, and thirteen people on death row were freed after evidence showed that they had been wrongfully convicted.

"I really wanted to write about this," Grumman says.

Her prize-winning editorials reveal her intense interest in the issue. She has called on government officials to improve the procedures for eyewitness identifications, address serious inequities in death-sentence convictions related to race and geography, narrow the eligibility for the death penalty, and acknowledge the problems with executing the mentally retarded, the mentally ill, and juvenile offenders.

"With the authority to impose the death penalty comes a responsibility to get it right," Grumman wrote in an editorial on "The Future of Capital Punishment." She added, "Now's the time to get it right. Get it right, or get rid of it."

Reaching the summit of her profession has not affected her writing, Grumman says, or lessened her desire to help shape readers' views. "Fortunately, I'm old enough and far along enough in my life and love what I do enough that I kind of forgot about [the Pulitzer] afterwards. I'm just the same old person I was before."