Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink, veteran reporters for the journal Science, have won the American Society for Microbiology’s 2012 Public Communications Award for their in-depth article on a controversial study that linked a mouse retrovirus, XMRV, to chronic fatigue syndrome (CFS).
The winning article, “False Positive”, published 23 September 2011, was based on four months’ worth of interviews with scientists and CFS patients from various parts of the world. Cohen and Enserink attended U.S. and European meetings in an effort to report all sides of the controversy. Their eight-page article carefully chronicled how the XMRV hypothesis arose, how it was embraced by patients and reporters, and its eventual rejection by all but a few researchers.
As Cohen and Enserink’s article explained, the XMRV hypothesis was launched by an 8 October 2009 research report in Science that purported to detect the infectious retrovirus in the blood cells of CFS patients. The report was partially retracted on 22 September 2011 after it was discovered that some of the samples were contaminated. At the same time, Science published a definitive study
by Graham Simmons and colleagues—researchers at nine different laboratories—who were unable to reproducibly detect XMRV or relatives of the virus in blood samples.
The original research, directed by Judy Mikovits, raised the hopes of people with CFS, or myalgic encephalomyelitis, since a clear biological cause would suggest the possibility of a treatment or even a vaccine, Cohen and Enserink noted.
In announcing the award, the ASM said Cohen and Enserink’s article “contributed to the public understanding of microbiology by documenting, in meticulous detail, just how the field operates when confronted with a result that doesn’t hold up.”
Judges for the award were Debora MacKenzie of New Scientist; Maryn McKenna of Wired; and Terry Murray of The Medical Post. Judges described “False Positive” as “extremely thorough and thoughtful” and a “thorough review of the XMRV/CFS hypothesis and attendant controversy.”
The ASM award recognizes outstanding journalistic achievement in increasing public awareness, knowledge, and understanding of microbiology.
Martin Enserink has been a reporter and editor for Science since 1999, first at the journal’s Washington, D.C., headquarters, and later in Paris. He is now a contributing news editor based in Amsterdam, The Netherlands. He specializes in infectious diseases and global health.
A correspondent with Science since 1990, Cohen also has written for The New Yorker, Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times Magazine, Smithsonian, Outside, Slate, Technology Review, and many other media outlets. His books include Shots in the Dark, Coming to Term and Almost Chimpanzee.
The Public Communications Award, which includes a $2,500 honorarium, will be presented during a ceremony at the ASM General Meeting, which is being held 16-19 June in San Francisco.
Adapted from an American Society for Microbiology news release
Read the winning story, “False Positive by Science journalists Jon Cohen and Martin Enserink.
Learn more about the American Society for Microbiology’s Public Communications Award.