Probing environmental reports on the size of the Gulf oil spill, the possible risks of chemicals commonly found in drinking water, and the fate of an endangered fish in the Colorado River are among the winners of the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) since their inception in 1945, go to professional journalists for distinguished reporting for a general audience. The Kavli Foundation, based in Oxnard, California, provided a generous endowment in 2009 that ensures the future of the awards program.
Independent panels of science journalists pick the winners, who will receive $3000 and a plaque at the 2011 AAAS Annual Meeting in Washington, D.C., in February.
“It’s an enormous honor to receive this award from the AAAS,” said Charles Duhigg, who won the large-newspaper award for his “Toxic Waters” series in The New York Times. “The Times’ investigation into the quality of American waters and the enforcement of environmental laws was only possible because scientists were so generous with their insights and expertise. To be recognized by the judges for ‘getting it right’ is enormously gratifying.”
As part of his reporting, Duhigg reviewed hundreds of scientific papers and spoke with dozens of researchers. He filed more than 500 Freedom of Information Act requests, built his own database, and ran thousands of queries to search for patterns in the data.
Richard Harris, a science correspondent for NPR, won the radio award, along with editor Alison Richards, for a series that challenged the initial estimates on the size of the devastating Gulf oil spill.
“To get this story, I found several scientists who were willing to drop what they were doing and take up the challenge I presented them,” Harris said. “With the able help of my editor, we quickly put this information out to the public. Though we initially met with resistance, facts are stubborn things, and ultimately the analysis was proven correct.” Harris won the radio award previously in 1988 and 1995.
Hillary Rosner, a freelance reporter, won the small-newspaper award for her piece in High Country News about the razorback sucker, an endangered fish in the Colorado River that once was abundant and now is dependent on continuing human intervention for its survival. “It’s a particular honor to win for this story because it touches on so many topics I love reporting on—biodiversity, resource management, human ingenuity,” Rosner said. “I remember being out there in the field thinking, ‘I have the best job in the world.’”
Two reports on aspects of memory also were honored. William Saletan of Slate won in the online category for “The Memory Doctor,” a lengthy examination of the work of leading memory researcher Elizabeth Loftus. In the winning television entry for spot news/feature reporting, Sarah Holt of “NOVA scienceNow” dealt with the physical basis for the brain’s storage of memories in a segment called “How Memory Works.”
“As always, the awards demonstrate that journalists are doing outstanding work, providing insights on the process of science and its impact on some of the pressing issues of the day,” said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science. “As the media landscape continues to evolve, it is reassuring to see the quality of effort being devoted to this vital area of coverage.”
The full list of winners of the 2010 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more
Charles DuhiggThe New York Times “Toxic Waters” 17 December 2009; 13 September 2009; 23 August 2009
The judges applauded Duhigg for his impressive combination of science reporting and investigative journalism. He looked at possible health risks of chemicals commonly found in the nation’s drinking water and the failure of regulators to update and enforce existing laws pertaining to such chemicals. “Charles Duhigg has set a new standard for science journalism and investigative reporting, distilling hundreds of research papers and regulatory reports into a damning indictment of water quality in the United States,” said Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal and one of the contest judges.
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 100,000
Hillary RosnerHigh Country News “One Tough Sucker” 7 June 2010
In her tale of the razorback sucker, Rosner noted that despite an alphabet soup of conservation and recovery plans, there are fewer fish in a smaller range. There have been turf wars between conservationists and sport-fishing advocates over management of fish species in the river. And it is now apparent that without constant management, the razorback sucker will be unlikely to survive. “Hillary Rosner’s meticulous field reporting and graceful writing illuminates the central dilemma in endangered species protection,” said Nancy Shute, a contributing editor to U.S. News and World Report. “What to do with creatures who can no longer survive without human intervention?”
Steve SilbermanWired “The Placebo Problem” September 2009
Steve Silberman told how an increasing number of medications are unable to beat dummy pills called placebos in head-to-head clinical testing, a point that has huge implications for the pharmaceutical industry. Only belatedly, he found, have researchers been trying to fully understand the power of the body’s response to placebos, and the real potential of that response to affect human health. Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer, said Silberman’s piece was “superbly written and superbly researched.” Mary Knudson, a freelance writer and journalism teacher at The Johns Hopkins University, called Silberman’s piece “a fascinating account,” told through an examination of medical history, drug trial records, and extensive interviews with scientists. “I learned that the humble phrase ‘the placebo effect,’ often used glibly to dismiss the benefits of quack therapies, describes a complex web of relationships—between doctor and patient, mind and body, and hope and affliction—that has a very concrete impact on our state of being,” Silberman said. “The pure joy of science reporting is having the perspective of a story open out like that. You start out by looking hard at some small phenomenon, and end up getting a glimpse of the higher orders at work in our everyday lives.”
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Sarah Holt NOVA scienceNOW “How Memory Works” 25 August 2009
The winning segment asked how a famous psychology subject named H.M. could retain memories of his childhood but not recall short-term memories such as what he had for lunch. It told how researchers are starting to learn what memories may be made of in the complex chemistry of the brain. Through animal experiments, neurobiologists are beginning to pinpoint specific molecules in the brain that are associated with the formation of memories. They also have found molecules that can erase memories forever. Peggy Girshman, executive editor for online at Kaiser Health News, said the broadcast was “an excellent presentation of a compelling story combined with an impressively clear description of the neuroscience.” Holt said her reporting “allowed me to profile the scientists sorting out the chemical and electrical changes that allow us to keep, indefinitely, the recollections of a lifetime.” Holt previously won a AAAS science journalism award in 2002 for a WGBH/NOVA program on “18 Ways to Make a Baby.”
The judges also awarded a “Certificate of Merit” for an entry by producer Vince Patton of Oregon Public Broadcasting and videographers Nick Fisher, Michael Bendixen and Todd Sonflieth. In two reports for OPB’s “Oregon Field Guide” program, on 4 February 2010 and 18 February 2010, Patton and colleagues showed the unanticipated impact of the bald eagle’s recovery on the breeding success of seabirds called common murres and a dedicated graduate student’s dogged pursuit of pygmy owls in a forest habitat on the edge of downtown Portland. Science reporter Seth Borenstein of The Associated Press called the reports “charming, lovely storytelling with a wonderful, leisurely pacing.”
In-Depth Reporting (More than 20 minutes)
Alan Alda, Graham Chedd, Larry Engel, and Jared Lipworth THIRTEEN, in association with WNET.ORG “The Human Spark” 6, 13, and 20 January 2010
This wide-ranging series asked basic questions about what makes us human and how our ancestors evolved with a spark of ingenuity and intelligence that set them apart from other species, including the Neanderthals with which they co-existed for a time. The series looked at what we share in common and what sets us apart from chimpanzees, considered our closest living relatives. And it discussed the latest imaging methods that are giving neuroscientists insights into the brain mechanisms that account for language, one of the most fundamental aspects of the human spark. Dan Vergano, a science writer for USA Today called the winning entry “a sprawling, ambitious look at what makes us human.” Paul Basken, science reporter for The Chronicle of Higher Education, called it “well-sourced, well-explained, and full of enthusiasm for the subject.” Series producer Graham Chedd noted that he first came to the United States from Britain nearly 40 years ago as a consultant to AAAS on public engagement with science, a role in which he helped found the NOVA science series on PBS. Since then, he has enjoyed what he called “a wonderful few decades making science shows, with my work with Alan Alda being the most rewarding experience of all. So I have much for which to thank the AAAS, making this award especially meaningful.” The series was produced by Chedd-Angier-Lewis Productions and THIRTEEN, in association with WNET.ORG.
Richard Harris and Alison Richards NPR “Follow the Science: Calculating the Amount of Oil and Gas in the Gulf Oil Spill”14 May 2010 20 May 2010 28 May 2010
Harris found independent experts who, using techniques available as well to BP and government specialists, concluded that the size of the spill was much larger than the official estimate of 5000 barrels a day. He located Steven Wereley, a Purdue University scientist, who used a method called particle image velocimetry to estimate that the flow of oil and gas from the crippled well could be 70,000 barrels a day. The NPR reports helped spur the creation of a federal panel (with Wereley as a member) to review the flow-rate estimates. By mid-June, the panel was estimating the flow at 35,000 to 60,000 barrels of oil a day, in line with what NPR had found. “Richard Harris’s reporting on the Gulf oil spill was an important and ground-breaking development in an ongoing story,” said Janet Raloff of Science News. “His coverage shows how science can shape public discourse on an important topic.” Added freelancer Kathy Sawyer, formerly with The Washington Post: “In digging behind the official estimates, Harris exposed the shortcomings of the BP and government approach to estimating the oil flow.”
The judges also gave a “Certificate of Merit” to Gabriel Spitzer of WBEZ in Chicago for a 10 September 2009 report on how music can rewire the brain. They praised his use of radio’s story-telling capabilities. John Carey, a freelancer and a former senior correspondent for BusinessWeek, noted Spitzer’s “great use of the medium of radio, with sounds that really did paint a picture.”
William Saletan Slate “The Memory Doctor” 4 June 2010
In his reporting on Loftus, Saletan explored the mutability of memory and the role and power of faked images. His richly textured presentation, with embedded video and relevant footnotes, included an exercise in which Slate, an online magazine, did its own experiment on memory manipulation. By doctoring photo images from recent political history, Saletan showed how even highly informed and educated readers can come to remember bogus political stories as true. Juliet Eilperin of The Washington Post said Saletan’s reporting raised important ethical questions about research on implanting false memories. She added that Saletan’s “smart use of a thought experiment with readers, illustrative video and comprehensive links demonstrated an authoritative use of online media.” Laura Helmuth, senior science editor at Smithsonian magazine, said the entry showed “a masterful understanding of research and its implications.” Helmuth noted that Saletan went beyond past profiles of Loftus “to reveal her complicated character.” Saletan said he owed the award to Loftus, who, he said, “believes in submitting everything to scrutiny, including herself. She feared no question, withheld no answer, and faced with an open mind the mysteries of her own past.”
In an entry of three unrelated stories, Cody Crane tackled an admirable breadth of subject matter in stories that took her young readers into the field to show how scientists think and work. She followed a Minnesota research biologist who checked in with hibernating bears for clues on how they manage their winter-long slumber. She also told her readers about vampire bats and other animal bloodsuckers that play an important role in nature. Catherine Hughes, science editor for National Geographic Kids, said that Crane’s writing is “clear, straightforward, kid-friendly.” Lauran Neergaard, a science reporter for The Associated Press, said the entry consisted of “fun and engaging stories that keep you hooked to the end — and teach you an enormous amount of science along the way.” About her writing, Crane said, “I not only wanted to do justice to the science being covered in each story but also keep kids reading to the end. To do that, I tried to pepper interesting facts into all three pieces. How weird is it to learn that vampire bats consume half their weight in blood each night or that hibernating bears don’t go to the bathroom for months? Together these stories show that scientific research can be gross, exciting, and inspiring.”
The Kavli Foundation is dedicated to advancing science for the benefit of humanity, promoting public understanding of scientific research, and supporting scientists and their work. The Foundation’s mission is implemented through an international program of research institutes in the fields of astrophysics, nanoscience, neuroscience, and theoretical physics, and through the support of conferences, symposia, endowed professorships, and other activities – including the Kavli Science Journalism Workshops at the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at MIT. The Foundation is also a founding partner of the biennial Kavli Prizes, which recognize scientists for their seminal advances in three research areas: astrophysics, nanoscience, and neuroscience.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science as well as Science Translational Medicine and Science Signaling. AAAS was founded in 1848, and includes 262 affiliated societies and academies of science, serving 10 million individuals. Science has the largest paid circulation of any peer-reviewed general science journal in the world, with an estimated total readership of 1 million. The non-profit AAAS is open to all and fulfills its mission to “advance science and serve society” through initiatives in science policy, international programs, science education, and more. For the latest research news, log onto EurekAlert!, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.
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