Winners of 2005 AAAS Science Journalism Awards

11/08/05

Stories about nature in all its complexity, from the impact of climate change to the frontiers of cosmology to the mysterious stranding of dolphins in a Florida mangrove swamp, are among the winners of the 2005 Science Journalism Awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS).

Independent panels of science journalists chose the winners of the awards, which honor excellence in science writing for print, radio, television broadcast and online categories. The judges also gave an inaugural award this year for writing about science news for children, a category that opened the AAAS competition to international publications and news outlets for the first time since the inception of the awards in 1945.

"I am very grateful to be recognized," said Elizabeth Kolbert, who won the magazine award for a three-part series in The New Yorker describing the evidence for global warming. The judges also honored Atul Gawande, another New Yorker writer, for his story on the disparities in outcome for treatment of cystic fibrosis and why even doctors with great knowledge and technical skill can have mediocre results.

"I think there is an enormous amount to be learned from close, detailed observation of cases," said Gawande, who is a practicing surgeon as well as a staff writer for The New Yorker. "It succeeds in generating new knowledge." The print judging committee found the work of Kolbert and Gawande to be exceptional and recommended that two awards be given this year in the magazine category.

The awards are sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, L.L.C. A record 386 entries were received this year. They included 69 entries in the new children's category, 32 of them from international reporters. The awards will be presented to the winners in a 17 February 2006 ceremony at the Gateway Arch in St. Louis during the AAAS Annual Meeting.

"At a time when public understanding of science is more important than ever, AAAS is pleased, through these independently judged awards, to recognize outstanding science writing that is both enlightening and engaging," said Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS chief executive officer.

"We congratulate these outstanding science journalists on their achievement and their ongoing commitment to bring excellence in scientific reporting to the public," said Seema Kumar, vice president, R&D Communications, Pharmaceuticals, Johnson & Johnson. "Science writers play a critical role in educating and engaging the public about cutting-edge science and research, make science more accessible and relevant to a lay audience, and help create an informed public."

The winners of the 2005 AAAS Science Journalism Awards are:

Print
Large Newspaper-Circulation of 100,000 or more
Dennis Overbye
The New York Times
"String Theory, at 20, Explains It All (or Not)" 7 December 2004
"Remembrance of Things Future: The Mystery of Time" 28 June 2005
"The Next Einstein? Applicants Welcome" 1 March 2005

The print judging committee was impressed by Overbye's wit and erudition in walking readers through the arcane world of string theory, the mysteries of time, and the prospects for another Albert Einstein.

"Sometimes the simplest, most basic elements of the universe are the most difficult to understand and explain, and surely time must be one of the top contenders," said Gino Del Guercio, an independent television producer and former AAAS journalism prize winner who served as a judge. "Overbye writes about it with wit and clarity that makes it all look easy."

"Overbye's articles reflect the fearlessness that a science reporter needs to explore the cutting edge of science and even sometimes step over it into realms where scientists themselves are not so sure-footed," said Tom Siegfried, a freelancer and former science editor of The Dallas Morning News.

Thinking and writing about the big questions in cosmology and particle physics "is an important aspect of human experience," Overbye said. "I'm thrilled I've been able to make a living at it."

Small Newspaper-Circulation less than 100,000
Richard Monastersky
The Chronicle of Higher Education
"Women and Science: The Debate Goes On" 4 March 2005
"The Hidden Cost of Fish Farming" 22 April 2005
"Come Over to the Dark Side" 3 June 2005

Monastersky was selected for a series of three unrelated pieces that showed a broad grasp of science, from the politically sensitive debate over how boys and girls learn about math to the risks of fish farms to the search by physicists for an elusive force that shapes the universe and accelerates its expansion.

"Monastersky's work stands out for its meticulous explanatory reporting of a remarkably broad range of scientific controversies," said Robert Lee Hotz of the Los Angeles Times.

"I am deeply honored that the judges selected my work for the award," Monastersky said. "There are many talented science journalists around the country and it is quite humbling to be selected by my peers." Monastersky, who won a AAAS Science Journalism Award in 2001 as well, said there is "a disturbing trend in the United States for newspapers to be cutting back on their science coverage at a time when the public needs in-depth reporting on this issue more than ever. I hope that both big and small newspapers recognize the importance of covering scientific issues and reverse this dangerous trend."

Magazine
Elizabeth Kolbert
The New Yorker
"The Climate of Man" 25 April 2005; 2 May 2005; 9 May 2005
Atul Gawande
The New Yorker
The Bell Curve 6 December 2004

Kolbert put the global warming issue in historical perspective, dug beneath the surface of the ongoing political debate, and visited locales where climate change is having an impact. Her series "is everything science journalism should be," Siegfried said. "It's thorough, accurate, compelling and dramatic. It weaves the science of global warming into the story of the people who grapple with it, from policy centers to the Alaskan permafrost."

"Elizabeth Kolbert doesn't just say global warming exists," said Mary Knudson, a freelance science writer and editor who served as a judge. "She takes readers on trip after trip and shows them in person its alarming effects."

Kolbert said she originally had intended to do a single story on the effects of climate change in the Arctic but was urged by David Remnick, editor of The New Yorker, to expand her reporting. With the ongoing political debate over climate change, Kolbert said, "I really did try to avoid a polemic."

A doctor's use of science and skill may be the easiet part of patient care, Gawande wrote in his piece. But the best outcomes can depend on other, more nebulous factors "like aggressiveness and consistency and ingenuity."

"Gawande's article described how doctors respond to the sometimes painful product of good scientific analysis," said Neil Munro of the National Journal, who served as a judge.

Gawande said he views his reporting as an effort to revive the importance of individual case studies in elucidating the mysteries of disease. "It's journalism with a small j," he said.

Television
Joseph McMaster, Martin Williams, Lara Acaster, Alex Williams
NOVA-WGBH
"The Wave that Shook the World" 29 March 2005

The judges noted the thoroughness and timely production of the hour-long NOVA program that aired within three months of the 26 December 2004 earthquake and devastating Indian Ocean tsunami that struck Indonesia, Thailand, Sri Lanka and elsewhere. "A great combination of science and human drama," said Warren Leary of The New York Times. "A fine documentary done in a very timely manner."

"Beyond the specifics of the scientific explanations, the production makes clear why the public needs to know 'scientific stuff,'" said Kathy Sawyer, a freelancer formerly with The Washington Post. She called it a "powerful combination" of reporting on science and the public interest.

"Putting this film together was truly a team effort," said Joseph McMaster, who produced the program for NOVA. "Production began almost immediately after the tsunami and continued around the clock to bring this minute-by-minute account to television as quickly as possible." Given the magnitude of the event, he said, "I think everyone who worked on this film hoped that a piece of science journalism like this would, at the very least, help viewers make some sense of this disaster." The program was written by Martin Williams and directed by Lara Acaster and Alex Williams.

Radio
John Nielsen
National Public Radio
"Dolphin Necropsies" 21 March 2005

Nielsen took listeners on a hunt for clues on why 65 dolphins stranded themselves in a mangrove swamp near the town of Marathon in the Florida Keys. Many of the animals died. As marine scientists were cutting up the dolphin carcasses, Nielsen was on the scene, providing his audience a graphic experience in hands-on research as well as an intriguing description of the matriarchal dolphin society that may have triggered the stranding event.

Dan Vergano of USA Today called the segment "a beautifully executed piece, with great use of on-the-scene sounds and very human quotes from the scientists involved."

"This is a beautifully written piece that humanizes science in a way seldom seen," said Lauran Neergaard of the Associated Press. "You feel you're there, you feel [the scientist's] passion for his work."

Nielsen said the story started out as a look at whether Navy sonar had affected the dolphins -- the evidence suggests it had not -- and turned to a closer look at Bill McClellan, the federal government's "go-to-guy" for marine mammal post mortems. "He turned out to be so interesting we just followed him," Nielsen said.

Online
Daniel Grossman
wbur.org
"Fantastic Forests: The Balance Between Nature & People of Madagascar" 3 June 2005 http://www.wbur.org/special/madagascar/

The judges were impressed by the lively quality of Grossman's work, which looks at the struggle to preserve biodiversity in Madagascar, an African island smaller than Texas but home to a prodigious diversity of fauna and flora more varied than that of all of North America. Grossman introduces online visitors to a rich catalogue of critters, including the fossa, a remarkable predator that looks like a cross between a cat and a dog and loves to snack on lemurs, the tree-dwelling primates for which Madagascar is famous.

Diedtra Henderson of the Boston Globe said Grossman gives "a clear sense of discovery, wonder and excitement" in his reporting, including "captivating details and a nice use of audio, visual and written story telling." Grossman's reporting from the jungles of Madagascar includes compelling video interviews with working scientists.

Jody Brannon, the executive producer for news at USA Today.com, said Grossman's entry is "richly interactive, with important research that makes learning fun."

Grossman, a AAAS prize winner for the second time, said he chose Madagascar as a venue for his reporting after previous trips to Antarctica and Greenland. "I decided I wanted to go to a more tropical place," he said. Grossman, who has developed his multimedia toolkit during his travels, did two video interviews with each subject in Madagascar in addition to the interviews for his online text stories.

Children's Science News
Elizabeth Carney
Scholastic's SuperScience
"Mammoth Hunters" March 2005

Elizabeth Carney gave her young readers an inviting description of the field work by scientists who are studying the remains of an ancient mammoth in Siberia. Laura Helmuth of Smithsonian magazine commended Carney's use of "inviting, non-patronizing language," including the amusing image that a mammoth weighs more than 230 fourth graders.

Carney, who wrote her story while working as an intern for Scholastic publications after completing a master's degree in biomedical journalism at New York University, also told her readers that many questions remain unanswered, such as why the mammoths died out. Her piece provides a vivid description of field work and gives kids the message, Helmuth said, that "they could go do this when they grow up."

"Although it focuses on the topic of mammoths, the story sheds light on scientists' work altogether," said Arthur Landwehr of German Public Radio. "Children can easily understand how much work is involved with discovery, and how rewarding it can be."

"I love children's writing," said Carney, who is now an editor at Current Psychiatry. She continues to freelance for Scholastic. "I'm very enthusiastic whenever they assign me a story," Carney said.

The judges noted the quality of entries in this inaugural competition for the children's science news award, including several strong contenders from international media outlets. In addition to recruiting international entries aggressively, AAAS also included international reporters on the judging panel.

Source: Eurekalert & others

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