Syracuse University Magazine

Giving Voice to Struggling Families

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Eli Saslow ’04 was waiting for a homebound train at New York City’s Pennsylvania Station when his phone rang with the big news. As he hung up, the symptoms of the flu that had stricken him began to fade. A Newhouse newspaper graduate and Washington Post reporter, Saslow just learned he had won the 2014 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting for his extensive work on the federal Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program, reaching the Mt. Olympus of the journalism profession. “I was really excited and, of course, honored,” says Saslow, who was returning home to the Washington, D.C., area, after traveling north to receive the George Polk Award for National Reporting, which also recognized his food stamp series

But Saslow hopes his recognition will especially help direct the public eye to the people he writes about and the difficulties they face. “I want readers to pay attention to the stories and to the people in the stories,” he says, “who very often are not having enough attention paid to them.”

In the award-winning six-piece series, Saslow portrays the struggles of families from all over the United States who rely on food stamps to survive and those who are familiar with their plight. A single mother of six from Washington, D.C., and a 9-year-old from Texas with cholesterol problems are among the individuals in his articles that give a face to the 47 million people enrolled in the government program. “These big problems in the country, they’re not confined to one kind of person and one place,” Saslow says. “Food stamps sustain one in every seven Americans.”

Looking to draw readers’ attention to the nation’s nutrition problems, Saslow focuses on how the politics of Capitol Hill affect people’s lives, using examples to illustrate their powerful impact. “If you’re able to write about people in ways where they’re not just stereotypes or stock characters,” he says, “if you can make people feel real, then hopefully when readers finish a story they feel like they know somebody and they understand what it’s like to be in that situation in a different way.” To do so, Saslow must spend days with the people he features, getting to know them. “I try to spend enough time in their lives that I can write about them in a complete and empathetic way in the paper,” he says.

As a first-year SU student, Saslow started forging his writing skills at The Daily Orange, covering sports. “It taught me how to write on deadline, and how to write quickly, and how to think about choosing and assigning stories—and it was also a tremendous amount of fun,” he says. After graduation, he became a reporter for The Buffalo News, then The Star-Ledger in New Jersey, and eventually The Washington Post in 2005. “Story after story, slowly over the years, I started writing longer and more ambitious stories and eventually writing about things other than sports,” says Saslow, who was a finalist for the 2013 Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing. 

From his experience reporting the food stamp issue, Saslow says he came away with two valuable lessons. “What I learned is that people are so trusting, and if you spend the time to listen to them and take the time to get to know them, they’re usually so good, and their hearts are often in the right places,” he says. “The enduring lesson for me is to try to go into every reporting situation with an open mind and compassion at the center of what I’m trying to do.” 

—Pablo Mayo Cerqueiro