An inquiry into mysterious elk deaths in Wyoming, a profile of a largely unknown black chemist who was a pioneer in the synthesis of medicinal drugs from plants, and a look at the merits of telling children they are smart are among the winners of the 2007 AAAS Science Journalism Awards from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.
Independent panels of science journalists chose the winners of the awards, which honor excellence in science reporting for print, radio, television and online categories. The awards, established in 1945, also include a prize for coverage of science news for children that is open to journalists worldwide. The judges awarded a special Certificate of Merit in the children’s category this year as well.
“There is no higher recognition than the AAAS awards,” said Po Bronson, co-author of the prize-winning effort in the magazine category. Bronson and Ashley Merryman won for their piece in New York magazine on the science of praising children. “The scientists we interview often titter amusedly, ‘Well, your work’s not peer-reviewed, ” Bronson said. “Now we can tell them, ‘It kinda has been.’”
Jennifer Frazer, a winner for her stories on elk deaths in the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle, said the subject gripped her from the outset. “It had the allure of a detective story and an unlikely culprit: a small green lichen that most people wouldn’t notice even if they walked right over it,” Frazer said.
Katie Alvord, a freelance reporter who won in the online category for her stories on the changing environment of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, said the award “makes the intense work I did to write this online article series even more worthwhile.” She added, “Especially for a small-town freelancer like me, it’s a real boost to get this kind of recognition.”
The winners included Kenneth Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling of the Los Angeles Times for an ambitious series that examined the profound disturbances that have been occurring in the ecology of the world’s oceans.
“The Altered Oceans series was an unusual undertaking for a newspaper,” Weiss said. “There was no single dramatic event like a hurricane or tsunami. No mass human deaths. Instead, we looked at the slow creep of environmental decay — the kind of changes that most people never notice.”
The AAAS Science Journalism Awards are sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, L.L.C. The winners will receive $3,000 and a plaque at the 2008 AAAS Annual Meeting in Boston in February.
“Informed reporting is essential if the public is to remain engaged with the crucial science issues of the day,” said Alan I. Leshner, the AAAS Chief Executive Officer and Executive Publisher of the journal Science. “The awards this year honor truly excellent work, both in national media and in some enterprising local outlets.”
The list of winners:
Large Newspaper — Circulation of 100,000 or more
Kenneth Weiss and Usha Lee McFarling
Los Angeles Times
July 30, 2006 – Aug. 3, 2006
The series described how industrial society has been overdosing the oceans with nutrients that have promoted the growth of harmful algae and bacteria. Plastic wastes have created a plague of floating detritus with widespread impact on sea life. The series also discussed how carbon dioxide is entering the oceans at a rate of nearly 1 million tons an hour, raising the acidity of seawater and threatening entire species. Natalie Angier, a Pulitzer Prize- winning science writer for The New York Times, said that the series gives “specificity and geography, a sense of place, to a part of the world we terrestrial species too often consider amorphous and unknowable.” She said the series shows “the sort of passionate rigor we rarely see in newspapers these days.” Frank Roylance of the Baltimore Sun, called it “a most compelling series, ambitious, important and surprising in many aspects. The writing was first-rate, the enterprise impressive.”
Small Newspaper — Circulation less than 100,000
“Getting to the Bottom of Mysterious Elk Deaths”
Nov. 26, 2006 and Dec. 3, 2006
A rash of mysterious elk deaths in Wyoming in 2004 left scientists and game wardens wondering what had happened. Frazer described the steps by which researchers determined that a poisonous lichen was the likely cause. In a two-part series, Frazer also described efforts to save the remaining elk and help the species recover. Calling her series an example of “superb local science writing,” Robert Lee Hotz of The Wall Street Journal said Frazer “opens a window into the mysteries of field epidemiology, turning a story of doomed elk into a page-turner of a lethal botany and the consequences of ecology.” Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer formerly with The Washington Post, said the series was a “compelling narrative detective story that shows how science can be put at the service of a community and why it matters.”
Po Bronson and Ashley Merryman
“How Not to Talk to Your Kids”
Feb. 19, 2007
According to a Columbia University survey, 85 percent of American parents think it is important to tell their children that they are smart, helping to ensure that they do not sell their talents short. But in a cover story in New York magazine, Bronson and Merryman described a growing body of research which suggests that giving kids the label “smart” does not prevent them from underperforming. Rather, it may actually be a cause of their underperformance. The story noted that the impulse to offer praise “has become a sort of panacea for the anxieties of modern parenting.” Roylance called the story a “terrifically written exploration of a topic of interest to any parent.” He said it was a “surprising, counter-intuitive treatment, well-sourced and well-grounded in the scientific literature.” Robert Boyd, a science writer in the Washington Bureau of McClatchy newspapers, called it a “beautifully written story of substantial importance to legions of parents …valuable that it appeared in a magazine not known for science articles.” He added that the story “reports actual scientific findings, not just pop-psychology generalities.”
Llewellyn Smith, Stephen Lyons
Feb. 6, 2007
The grandson of Alabama slaves, African-American scientist Percy Julian overcame racial discrimination to become one of the leading chemists of the 20th century. The winning WGBH/NOVA program told his remarkable and largely unknown story. The program describes not only Julian’s early struggles to open doors traditionally closed to blacks but also his keen sense for how to do science. His work with steroids and alkaloids helped bring about a host of affordable and effective treatments for diseases like rheumatoid arthritis and glaucoma. The judges praised the program for its insights into Julian’s personality and its clear explanations of the science that Julian pursued during his career as an academic and industrial chemist. Peter Spotts, science writer for The Christian Science Monitor, called the program “a superb profile of a little-known scientist that covers the science well but also raises profound issues. Not just informative, but moving.” Christine Dell’Amore, an editor at National Geographic News, said “the producers’ determination to portray Julian as an authentic person, with his own faults, gave credence to the story and allowed the viewer to relate to Julian as he moved through his career.”
“The Electric Brain”
Jan. 9-11, 2007
In a thematic series, Seinfeld of KPLU-FM in Seattle/Tacoma described the electrical properties of the human brain and how scientists are finding new ways to use those properties to treat diseases and injuries. The judges were impressed by his clear, concise language and great use of sound in telling about important research in neuroscience. “While a drill whines in the background, cutting a hole in the top of a patient’s skull, Keith Seinfeld carries his listeners into the story,” said Jeff Nesmith, a Washington-based science writer for Cox Newspapers. “This kind of radio journalism seizes a listener’s attention while it delivers an understandable account of complicated science.” David Baron, global development editor for Public Radio International’s “The World” program, praised the “vividness of the writing, the clarity of the scientific explanations, the superb use of sound, the dramatic storytelling.” He said Seinfeld’s work “hangs together beautifully as a series, with each story building upon those that came before. Well conceived and brilliantly executed, ‘The Electric Brain’ is radio science journalism of the highest order.”
“Lake Superior Basin Climate Change” series
May 3, 2007; June 3, 2007; June 30, 2007
In a solid example of localized science reporting for a community-based Web site, freelance writer Alvord described the potential local impacts of global warming on a local Michigan community. Kathy Sawyer, a freelance science writer formerly with The Washington Post, said Alvord’s “well-crafted and enterprising online package ‘zooms in’ to capture the effects of global climate change” on Michigan’s Keweenaw Peninsula. “The writing, supplemented by telling photos, provides specific, graphic detail for an audience that might not get from any other medium such extensive information about what's happening in their environs,” Sawyer said. Bryn Nelson, a freelance science writer, said Alvord delivered a “compelling, accessible and well-reported analysis of how a global phenomenon could be intensely local for a community in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, including its possible impacts on winter recreation, tourism, Lake Superior’s water levels and even the moose population on Isle Royale National Park. Alvord also included the necessary nuances to balance the potential dangers against the remaining uncertainties.”
CHILDREN’S SCIENCE NEWS
Scholastic Science World
“A Whale of a Mystery”
Jan. 15, 2007
Chiang told her young readers about an investigation by scientists into the puzzling death of a North Atlantic right whale that was spotted drifting off the coast of Nova Scotia. She described various clues that the researchers followed in trying to determine the cause of death. They eventually concluded that a large, blunt object had hit the whale on one side. Catherine Hughes, a senior editor for National Geographic Kids magazine, said the story met all the criteria. “The mystery is an immediate draw for kids, as is the compelling species, the ever-popular whale,” Hughes said. “The scientific process used to solve the mystery both teaches and holds readers’ interest.” Susan Milius, a reporter for Science News, said Chiang “showed scientific process in action with vivid details. What’s not to love about decayed whale flesh oozing like toothpaste"”
Certificate of Merit
The judging panel recommended a special Certificate of Merit for the runner-up in the children’s news category. Sina Loeschke, a writer for GEOlino — a German science magazine for children — wrote an engaging piece about sea slugs. “With lively, imaginative writing and colorful pictures, the story deftly introduces readers to these unusual ocean denizens and cogently explains their biological quirks,” said John Carey of Business Week. Loeschke’s piece was published on Feb. 7, 2007.
The American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) is the world’s largest general scientific society, and publisher of the journal, Science (www.sciencemag.org). AAAS was founded in 1848, and has 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 (www.aaas.org) 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!, www.eurekalert.org, the premier science-news Web site, a service of AAAS.