Stories about the microbial hitchhikers we all harbor, the largest dam-removal project in North America, and issues raised by the new era of personal genomics are among the winners of the 2012 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 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 2013 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston in February.
Carl Zimmer, a freelance science writer, won the award for the large newspaper category for three stories published in The New York Times, including a piece about the trillions of microbes that reside on and in our bodies. Zimmer, who previously won in the large newspaper category in 2009 and in the online category in 2004, also wrote about evolution in the every-day urban environment of New York City as well as concerns about a rise in scientific journal retractions.
“I’m deeply grateful to my editors at The New York Times for letting me follow my curiosity about science in whatever direction it leads, be it the bacteria that live inside of us, the evolution going on around us, or the precarious state of science today,” Zimmer said. “That sort of freedom is a precious commodity these days.”
Kirsten Weir, the winner in the children’s science news category, also wrote for her young readers about the microbes that inhabit our bodies and help in many cases to keep invading organisms at bay. “Kids often seem to think that science is something that happens in a laboratory or a faraway place,” Weir said. “I loved that this story underscored how much is still unknown about the organisms living right under our noses (not to mention the rest of our bodies).”
Lynda V. Mapes, Steve Ringman and Genevieve Alvarez of The Seattle Times won in the online category for a richly detailed package of stories, videos, graphics and photographs on the removal of two old dams on the Elwha River in the Olympic Peninsula of Washington State and efforts to restore the ecosystem.
Sarah Holt, who also is now a three-time winner of the award, was honored along with executive producer Laurie Donnelly for a NOVA documentary, “Cracking Your Genetic Code.” The program, which was written, produced and directed by Holt, explored what it could mean when each of us, for a reasonable cost, can have all of the information in our DNA read, stored and available for analysis. The readout on your genes will reveal the risks of developing certain diseases as well as the chances you might pass them along to your children. The program also discussed the moral dilemmas raised by the new era of genetic self-knowledge.
Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science, said the 2012 awards “show that reporters are taking on big stories that both excite and enlighten. Science journalism, despite budget stringencies at many news organizations, remains alive and well.”
The full list of winners of the 2012 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
Large Newspaper: Circulation of 100,000 or more
Carl Zimmer, freelance writer
Published in The New York Times
“Evolution Right Under Our Noses” 26 July 2011
“A Sharp Rise in Retractions Prompts a Call for Reform” 17 April 2012
“Tending the Body’s Microbial Garden” 19 June 2012
The judges praised Zimmer’s entry as an example of sustained excellence in reporting on a range of science topics. His story about evolution at work on organisms living in and around New York City—from white-footed mice in an urban park to native ants to fish in the Hudson River—was a “surprising, intriguing, and amusing look at science in unexpected places,” said contest judge Laura Helmuth, science editor for the online magazine Slate. Robert Lee Hotz, a science writer for The Wall Street Journal, said Zimmer’s reporting on urban evolution and on the microbes that exist on and in the human body “makes us see the world with new eyes.” At the same time, Hotz added, Zimmer “does not shy from exposing the shortcomings and frauds of science, as retractions and examples of misconduct become more numerous.”
Small newspaper: Circulation less than 100,000
The judges declined to give an award in the small newspaper category this year.
Michelle Nijhuis, freelance writer
Published in Smithsonian magazine
“Crisis in the Caves”
Nijhuis donned a protective suit and went underground to observe both bats and biologists as she reported on white-nose syndrome, a fast-moving fungal disease that has killed more than a million cave-dwelling bats in the northeastern United States and is threatening to spread across the continent. The judges noted the scope of the Nijhuis story, which provided an in-depth look at an issue that has been emerging since 2007 when the disease was first discovered in bats behaving oddly in upstate New York. Andrew Revkin, a senior fellow at Pace University and Dot Earth blogger for The New York Times, called the story a “deep, detailed, and disturbing dive into the mysterious outbreak devastating bats in North America.” Nancy Shute, a freelance science writer and immediate past president of the National Association of Science Writers, said the piece showed “terrific field reporting, lyrical writing, and compassion for the struggles of scientists in the face of the unknown.” Nijhuis, a previous winner in 2006 in the small newspaper category, noted that bats are “about as far from ‘charismatic megafauna’ as you can get.” The challenge of the story, she said, was to demystify the creatures and make their “very real plight interesting and appealing” to a general audience. “The scientists in the story, who were passionate about bats and about solving the problems at hand, helped me to do that,” she said. Note: Revkin recused himself in the judging for the Zimmer entry.
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
KQED QUEST (San Francisco)
“Hetch Hetchy Aqueduct: Big Fixes for Big Quakes”
9 November 2011
Much of the Hetch Hetchy water delivery system for the San Francisco Bay Area was built in the 1920s and 1930s with riveted steel pipes that don’t perform well during earthquakes. At a cost of $4.6 billion, the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been installing new pipes and employing state-of-the-art engineering elements. In a solid mix of historical footage and on-the-scene reporting, with an appreciation for the challenges involved, KQED’s Sheraz Sadiq explained the engineering steps being undertaken to protect the Bay Area’s water supply. Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer who helped judge the contest, called the KQED broadcast “a comprehensive look at the vulnerability of the water supply in the San Francisco Bay Area — something that should concern every resident.” He praised the “fascinating use of historical footage, outstanding engineering footage, and graphics” to tell the tale. “My editors and I knew from the outset that this would be a difficult story to tell,” Sadiq said. “It would need to cover the controversial history of Hetch Hetchy, explain how the current water system works and the complex, innovative work underway to keep the water flowing in the event of a major earthquake in the Bay Area.”
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Sarah Holt and Laurie Donnelly
“Cracking Your Genetic Code” 28 March 2012
Sarah Holt and Laurie Donnelly
“Cracking Your Genetic Code” told about the emerging field of personalized medicine through the eyes of real people, including a cancer patient who appears to have cheated death and a cystic fibrosis sufferer breathing easily because scientists have been able to pinpoint and neutralize genetic abnormalities. But the program noted that in a new field, success and failure often intermix. It told of the frustrating and so-far unsuccessful hunt for genetic clues to an illness that has caused a bubbly 5-year-old to suffer multiple strokes. The program also discussed the moral dilemmas raised by the new era of genetic self-knowledge: Will it help or hurt us to know the diseases that may lie in our future, particularly if no treatments are now available? And what happens if such information falls into the hands of insurance companies, employers or prospective mates? Janet Raloff, senior editor at Science News, said the NOVA program is “an example of probing, first-rate journalism. Compelling story lines kept you engaged from beginning to end.” Steve Burns, an independent TV producer with long experience in science programming, said the broadcast is “full of great journalistic storytelling on a topic important and relevant to each of us.” Holt, like Zimmer in the print category, also becomes a three-time winner. She previously won awards for TV in 2002 and 2010. “Personalized medicine will soon be coming to a doctor’s office near you,” Donnelly said, “and we will all need to be able to critically assess the ethical issues it raises, along with its potential benefits.” The winning program was produced in association with The Hastings Center, a nonprofit bioethics research institute.
Bari Scott, Alex Chadwick, Mary Beth Kirchner, Robert Rand, Robin Wise
“Particles: Nuclear Power After Fukushima”
SoundVision Productions for American Public Media
11 March 2012
Clockwise from top left: Bari Scott, Alex Chadwick, Mary Beth Kirchner, Robert Rand, Robin Wise
The program, part of a series called “BURN: An Energy Journal,” was a one-year anniversary special examining the future of nuclear power after the disaster at the Fukushima Daiichi plant in Japan. It featured an interview with an American nuclear technician who was working inside the plant when the tsunami and earthquake struck. It also included tape recordings from inside the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission’s Emergency Operations Center as officials struggled to shape America’s response to the Fukushima disaster. Seth Borenstein, a science reporter for the Associated Press, said the broadcast was “gripping, informative and thorough—radio science journalism at its best.” Larry Engel, an associate professor in the American University School of Communication and a freelance broadcast producer, said the program had “an excellent combination of story reporting, writing, character development, and sound recording and editing.” Bari Scott, executive producer of the BURN series, said: “We’re honored that AAAS has recognized BURN’s debut program. By showing energy issues through the lens of personal experience, BURN aims to help people let go of preconceived notions and take in new information.” Scott previously won the radio award in 2002.
Lynda V. Mapes, Steve Ringman, Genevieve Alvarez
The Seattle Times
“Elwha: The Grand Experiment” 17 September 2011
Genevieve Alvarez, Steve Ringman, Lynda V. Mapes
On the Olympic Peninsula in the state of Washington, the largest dam-removal project in North America is underway. At a cost of $325 million, two dams that have blocked salmon runs on the Elwha River for more than a century are being removed in a grand experiment in ecological restoration that is posing challenges for engineers and scientists alike. State, federal and tribal scientists are gathering baseline data on what the river basin is like today and what it could become as 800 acres drowned by the dam reservoirs are seeded with hundreds of thousands of native plants. The complicated restoration process could take as much as a century. In an ambitious series on the project, reporter Lynda V. Mapes, photographer Steve Ringman, and video editor Genevieve Alvarez shaped thousands of words and photos as well as hours of raw video footage into a multiple-platform presentation that the judges praised for exploiting the online medium. “This is what online journalism should be,” said David Baron, health and science editor for Public Radio International’s The World. “All of the elements — text, photos, video, graphics — work together seamlessly. The site is rich and vibrant, bringing to life a fascinating story about a special place.” Mapes said: “For each of us, it was so rewarding to have an opportunity to go into depth on such a complex and important story, and learn not only the what, but the why and how behind the restoration of an entire ecosystem, from mountains to the sea.” Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer who formerly was with The Washington Post, said the series “takes the reader into the water with the fish and renders the scientists’ ‘muddy boots’ research with telling detail, while also offering humanizing details on dam workers, tribal members, and others.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Kirsten Weir, freelance writer
Published in Current Health Kids
“Uninvited Guests” April/May 2012
Weir described for her young readers the parasites, microbes, and creepy-crawlies that live in (and on) the human body. In her lively tour of our hitch-hiking microbial community, Weir noted: “There are more of them than there are of us.” She cautioned her readers not to be freaked out by the trillions of microbial stowaways, noting that most of them are essential and help prevent other, more harmful bacteria from moving in. Catherine Hughes, senior editor for science at National Geographic Kids, said Weir used humor, analogy, and a great opening paragraph “to pull in and keep her readers.” She said Weir’s “well-placed use of figures and numbers added more “wow” factors to the topic.” Weir noted, for example, that when researchers stuck cotton swabs into the navels of 90 people, they found about 1400 species of microbes, many of which had never been seen before. “This piece was beautifully written, broke down a complex subject and included excellent reporting,” said Lisa Friedman, deputy editor of ClimateWire. “I learned something from it, and I think kids will too.”
Learn more about The Kavli Foundation, which provided a generous endowment in 2009 that ensures the future of the awards program.
Learn more about the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.