Kavli Science Journalism Awards: a #AAASmtg 2011 reading list

One of my favorite parts of the AAAS annual meeting used to be scoring a copy of the book of reprints of the science journalism award-winning articles. The 1998 meeting was my first, and as a graduate student I figured the best way to figure out how to BE a science journalist was to READ great science journalism. I still believe that.

David Walter Banks for The New York Times  The mouth of Avondale Creek in Alabama, into which a pipe maker dumped oil, lead and zinc. A court ruling made the waterway exempt from the Clean Water Act.

From the Toxic Waters series: David Walter Banks for The New York Times. Photo and story: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/01/us/01water.html

Well, those books are now sitting in a storage unit somewhere in Maryland, and of course these days they don’t even print the books anymore. But we all get to read and hear the award winners through the magic of the Internet. Here are this year’s winners (text lifted from the AAAS news story):

PRINT
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more
Charles Duhigg, The New York Times, “Toxic Waters
17 December 2009; 13 September 2009; 23 August 2009
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 100,000
Hillary Rosner, High Country News,“One Tough Sucker” 7 June 2010
[Read the story behind Rosner's story on The Open Notebook.]

Magazine
Steve Silberman, Wired, The Placebo Problem” September 2009
TELEVISION
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Sarah Holt, NOVA scienceNOW, “How Memory Works
25 August 2009
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.
In-Depth Reporting (More than 20 minutes)
Alan Alda, Graham Chedd, Larry Engel, and Jared Lipworth, “The Human Spark”, 6, 13, and 20 January 2010
RADIO
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
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.
ONLINE
William Saletan, Slate, “The Memory Doctor”, 4 June 2010
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Cody Crane, Science World (Scholastic), Learning from Bears”, “Real-Life Bloodsuckers”, “Saving the Ozone Layer”, 1 February 2010; 26 October 2009; 7 September 2009
PRINT
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more
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
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?”

Magazine
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.”

TELEVISION
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
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.”

[PHOTOGRAPH] Vince Patton, Nick Fisher, Michael Bendixen and Todd SonfliethVince Patton, Nick Fisher, Michael Bendixen and Todd Sonflieth

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)
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.

RADIO
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.”

[PHOTOGRAPH] Gabriel SpitzerGabriel Spitzer

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.”

ONLINE
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.”

CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS

The award winning pieces are all examples of great storytelling. In a blog post yesterday, Hillary Rosner laments the decline of long-form journalism: “I don’t think many other newspapers would’ve given me 4,000 words in which to tell the story—and it’s a shame, because I think there’s a hunger for long-form narrative journalism that’s only increasing as the outlets for it decline.”

She continues: “At a lunch for the AAAS Kavli award winners, fellow PLoS blogger Steve Silberman, who won the magazine award for his Wired story The Placebo Problem,” mentioned that he’d had the luxury of spending several months on his story—a state of affairs that’s as endangered today as the razorback sucker.”

As if to continue the endangered species metaphor, Silberman had this to say in the comments: “Hillary, it’s probably worth mentioning the bittersweet fact that, while I had the “luxury” of two months to report and write my placebo story, I was laid off with a ten-second phone call (technically, “non-reupped”) 48 hours after turning it in, after 14 years at the magazine and website … . … the whole experience was a vivid demonstration of how tenuous anyone’s position is in the current ecosystem.”

Yikes.

Charlie Petit of the Knight Science Journalism Tracker counted stories and (reporter) bodies from/at the meeting and noted that it seemed a little thin (on both counts). I’m sure we’ll get word at some point on the actual number of reporters who turned up.

For more from the meeting, you can search the Twitter hashtag #AAASmtg, search Google News, or look at BoingBoing. AAAS rounded up its coverage on its handy news page.

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