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Award-Winning Science Journalists Share Investigative Tips with Peers

Anna Nordbeck's team at Swedish Public Television uncovered medical misconduct by then renowned surgeon Dr. Paolo Macchiarini. | Neil Orman/AAAS

In early 2015, Swedish Public Television received a tip that four doctors from Stockholm’s Karolinska Institute, the research university that awards the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine, had come forward with allegations against one of their colleagues.

Anna Nordbeck and her investigative reporting team would spend the next year pursuing accusations related to then renowned surgeon Dr. Paolo Macchiarini.

When Macchiarini was hired by the Karolinska Institute in 2010, he was a budding celebrity. At Barcelona’s Hospital Clinic, he had colonized a donor trachea with the stem cells of a patient who was suffering from tuberculosis in order to successfully transplant the organ into her body. He planned to develop a trailblazing procedure, which consisted of bathing plastic organs in a patient’s stem cells so that, in theory, when transplanted, the body would produce a graft with artificial tissue.

“He was a star surgeon with revolutionary ideas,” Nordbeck said to an auditorium full of science journalists earlier this month. “That is one of the reasons why this could happen, why everyone seemed to get so blind to what Macchiarini actually did. None of the patients who got this graft, this plastic trachea, is alive today.”

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Anna Nordbeck. | Courtesy of Anna Nordbeck

By the time Nordbeck and her team aired their three-part documentary in January 2016, they could prove that Macchiarini had falsified scientific records, painting a misleading picture of the conditions of eight patients who received his synthetic tracheas. The investigative team also showed that Macchiarini had never tested the method in animals before performing the surgery on humans.

To gain a more nuanced understanding of the scandal than other news outlets were providing, Nordbeck and her colleagues investigated from many angles, including getting so close to Macchiarini himself that he invited them to sail on his boat in Barcelona.

The Swedish Public Television series led to Macchiarini’s firing and the resignation of the vice chancellor of the Karolinska Institute. Nordbeck told her audience that the whole experience taught her an important lesson.

“You can find a story within a story that has been reported a lot already,” she said.

The Macchiarini documentary earned Nordbeck and her colleagues a gold award in the television in-depth reporting category of the 2016 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards. In a July 3 panel session at the World Conference of Science Journalists in Lausanne, Switzerland, she and three other recent AAAS Kavli Award-winners shared their investigative methods for science reporting.

Each year since 1945, the AAAS Kavli Awards have recognized individual reporters for outstanding coverage of STEM topics. The judging criteria require scientific accuracy, originality and value in fostering a better public understanding of science and its impact. The awards’ eight categories cover every journalistic medium, from print and digital to audio, television and children’s science news. Gold and silver awardees in each category receive a monetary prize and recognition at the AAAS Annual Meeting.

“In their call for proposals, the organizers of the World Conference of Science Journalists said science journalism does not have a strong tradition in investigative reporting,” said Earl Lane, executive director of the AAAS Kavli Awards. “They called it ‘a skill we need more than ever.’ I felt that four of our recent award winners had done work that spotlighted solid investigative methods, and I am glad the organizers agreed. Our speakers had interesting stories to tell and useful tips to offer.”

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Sarah Wild. | Courtesy of Sarah Wild

Thanks to a doubled endowment from The Kavli Foundation, a California-based philanthropy focused on advancing science for the benefit of society, the AAAS Kavli Awards went international in 2015. Along with Nordbeck on the conference panel was Sarah Wild, a South African freelancer who won gold in the small newspaper category in 2017. Wild’s three-part series in Johannesburg’s Mail & Guardian exposed a staggering number of unidentified dead in Gauteng, a South African province that sees 16,500 unnatural deaths a year.

“I heartily recommend, if you are doing a big investigation, to choose someone to collaborate with,” said Wild, who worked with a photographer on the award-winning series. “Because you can look at projects from different angles, you bring different things to the table, and you can bounce ideas off each other. And, in this case, you can support each other emotionally. I don’t think we talk about the kind of damage these stories do to us as reporters.”

Nordbeck and Wild were joined at the conference by two lauded, American science journalists, Charles Piller and Deborah Nelson. Piller, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, was formerly on staff at The Sacramento Bee, The Los Angeles Times and other outlets and is now an investigative reporter for the news section of Science magazine. Nelson, who shared a Pulitzer Prize with two Seattle Times colleagues in 1997, is now a freelance writer and associate professor of investigative reporting at the University of Maryland.

Charles Piller, a Pulitzer Prize nominee, and Deborah Nelson, a Pulitzer winner, spoke about their investigative techniques for science journalism. | Adam Cohen/AAAS

Piller’s investigation for STAT showed that many universities and institutions were ignoring their legal duty to report research results to, a federal repository of clinical studies, thus “depriving patients and doctors of complete data to gauge the safety and benefits of treatments.” Piller and a colleague, Natalia Bronshtein, won the gold AAAS Kavli Award in the online category in 2016, and the National Institutes of Health has reported that, since the story’s publication, researchers have significantly increased public reporting of trial results.

Nelson and two fellow Reuters journalists won the 2017 gold award in the large newspaper category — Nelson’s second AAAS Kavli Award — after deciding to look at how many people were dying of antibiotic-resistant infections, or superbugs, in U.S. hospitals each year. Just before they started the investigation, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention had published a widely cited report, which put the figure at 23,000. Nelson was skeptical.

“The best science and the best investigative journalism have this in common: They are both evidence-based; they rely on methodical, independent determination of facts,” Nelson said. “I have found that the more authoritative, the more widely quoted the source, the more important it is for us to ask that all-important due-diligence question: How do they know that?”

Months of probing showed that the CDC’s figure was based on extrapolations from a small amount of data on a handful of hospitals. Fifteen years after declaring superbugs a high priority, the U.S. government had little idea how many lives the infections were taking each year and where outbreaks were occurring. The CDC scientists whom Nelson interviewed called their estimate “an impressionist painting.”

Nelson’s story brought urgent attention to a critical and previously ignored public health issue. She urged attendees at the World Conference of Science Journalists to seek recognition for their own important science reporting by submitting entries for a AAAS Kavli Award.

“I would encourage you to enter your own work,” Nelson said. “The deadline is August 1.”


[Associated image: Simonetta Sommaruga delivers a welcome address at the World Conference of Science Journalists. | Adam Cohen/AAAS]



Adam D. Cohen

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