Sponsored by The Whitaker Foundation, the AAAS Science Journalism Awards program, informally known as the "AAAS pinnacle of excellence prize," represents the ultimate achievement in the field of science reporting. Six reporters were named to receive AAAS Science Journalism Awards this year, recognizing exemplary communications efforts, completed between July 1, 2001 and June 30, 2002, on behalf of large and small newspapers, magazines, television, radio, and online media outlets.
"With scientists and journalists as judges, this award is a double honor and doubly humbling," said Peter N. Spotts, science and technology correspondent for The Christian Science Monitor in Boston and this year's winner for smaller newspapers. "I also feel a bit like the kid who brings home his first straight-A report card. His parents say, 'We knew you could do it. Now, keep it up!' The award poses a similar challenge to all its recipients: to hit that level of excellence with greater consistency.
The 2002 AAAS Science Journalism Award recipients, below, will each receive a $2,500 cash award and plaque during a gala reception at the 2003 AAAS Annual Meeting in Denver next February. (See www.aaas.org to register for the Annual Meeting):
Newspapers with a circulation of more than 100,000
Andrew C. Revkin of The New York Times was honored for three articles: "U.S. Sees Problems in Climate Change" (June 3, 2002); "Sunken Fires Menace Land and Climate" (January 15, 2002); and "The Devil is in the Details" (July 3, 2001). "Fires are burning in thousands of underground coal seams from Pennsylvania to Mongolia, releases toxic gases, adding millions of tons of heat-trapping carbon dioxide to the atmosphere and baking the earth until vegetation shrivels and the land sinks," Revkin wrote in his expose on burning coal fires. The impact of gaps in climate models on efforts to predict global warming, and the U.S. Climate Action Report 2002 were the focus of his other entries, praised for their comprehensiveness, accuracy and clarity.
Revkin, who had previously received the AAAS award for 1984 magazine coverage of the theory of nuclear winter, said that recognition helps to encourage more comprehensive environmental reporting: "Particularly when covering something as complicated and multi-facted as the changing climate," he said, "this award is the kind of feedback every writer craves--confirmation by peers and experts that you're getting things right."
Newspapers with a circulation of less than 100,000
Peter N. Spotts of The Christian Science Monitor, received an award for articles titled, "If You Smash It, They Will Come" (August 23, 2001); "Fish or Famine" (September 6, 2001); and "Out of Africa...Come Fascinating Fossils" (November 15, 2001). Dreams of a 20-mile-long particle collider for probing the sub-atomic world inspired one of the articles by Spotts, while the others covered controversial marine reserves and Africa's emerging role as a hotbed of significant new dinosaur discoveries. Sharply drawn, compelling descriptions are a hallmark of work by Spotts, who described a marine reserve, for example, as "151 square nautical miles of crystalline water brush-stroked with the brilliant hues of tropical fish and lush coral."
Michael Specter of The New Yorker earned the AAAS Science Journalism Award for magazine entries with his 10-page story on the evolution of what is known about learning and the brain, titled, "Rethinking the Brain" (July 23, 2001). Specter's piece opens with researcher Fernando Nottebohm's fixation on the melodies of songbirds, a pivotal event in neuroscientific history: "Nottebohm's obsession with how birds learn to sing set off a chain of discoveries that have fundamentally altered the way scientists think about the brain," Specter explained in a piece that effectively draws readers behind the scenes of scientific investigation. "It has also opened a tantalizing, if tentative, new route toward treating degenerative conditions."
Sarah Holt of WGBH/NOVA won the television award from AAAS for her piece titled, "18 Ways to Make a Baby" (October 9, 2001), which investigated reproductive technologies since the development of in vitro fertilization, and the birth in 1978 of Louise Brown, the first human baby conceived outside the womb. Through interviews with parents and medical professionals, and amazing clinical footage, Holt explains that one in six couples struggle with infertility issues, and she makes such complex terms as "intracytoplasmic sperm injection" understandable, while also covering some of the troubling questions raised by "designer baby" initiatives and older mothers. "There's, like, 18 different ways to make a baby now," one of her subjects says. "And, you know, that makes us rethink, 'What is a family?'"
Bari Scott of SoundVision Productions (for broadcast over National Public Radio (NPR)) received the AAAS Science Journalism Award for a series called, "The DNA Files" (November 2001). Hosted by John Hockenberry, the segment pointed out that "what we're learning from the DNA, in organisms as diverse as bears, barnacles, and bacteria, is telling us not only intimate details about these life-forms, but about all of life." The fascinating review chronicled what is known thus far about DNA, in a lively format that covered an array of amazing uses of DNA-based knowledge--from forensics to the identification of rogue bears, and from genetic fingerprinting of threatened creatures to the development of pollutant-degrading microbes.
Alan Boyle of MSNBC.com earned the AAAS prize for online entries, with an article titled, "Genetic Genealogy: How science is filling out family trees" (January 16, 2002). By examining the emerging practice of genetic genealogy, the quest to track down family roots, Boyle's piece revealed the mystery and excitement of DNA analysis--a topic perhaps not usually associated with high drama. Boyle walked readers through DNA testing technologies by telling a first-person story of his own quest to learn the truth about his family, beyond his great-grandfather, who fled Ireland's County Clare during the depths of Ireland's potato famine in 1847.
The online awards category helps to promote best practices in the emerging field of Internet-based science journalism, Boyle noted. "I'm humbled and grateful to be in such august company," he added. "I hope this recognition will encourage online journalists--including myself--to go beyond 'shovelware' and tell tales of wonder that are made for the Web."
The AAAS Science Journalism Awards program, established in 1945, "helps to foster the public's understanding and appreciation of science, by promoting best practices in journalism," noted Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer at the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) and executive publisher of its journal, Science. "Further, the winning entries then serve as teaching tools as they are disseminated each year to science writing programs at universities and colleges throughout the country."
Since their inception nearly six decades ago, the awards have honored more than 300 individuals for their achievements in science journalism. The awards recognize outstanding reporting for a general audience and honor individuals (rather than institutions, publishers or employers) for their coverage of the sciences, engineering and mathematics. To ensure the utmost objectivity and the highest possible standards of integrity, all entries are assessed by independent screening and judging panels, explained Frank Blanchard of The Whitaker Foundation, a private, nonprofit organization supporting biomedical engineering research and education, sponsor of the AAAS Science Journalism Awards since 1995.
For this reason, winners report that the awards program offers significant career visibility and acknowledgement of achievement: Past winner Natalie Angier of The New York Times, for example, has likened her 1992 AAAS award to the Pulitzer Prize, which she has also received. "With the AAAS award," she wrote in an essay on her prize, "I knew that I would be judged by the crème de la cognoscenti, one panel composed of working scientists and another of science journalists ... I was delighted to win the AAAS award."
Founded in 1848, the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), http://www.
The mission of The Whitaker Foundation, based in Arlington, Virginia, is to promote better human health through advancements in medicine. This is accomplished through a series of competitive grant programs that support research and education in biomedical engineering at academic institutions in the United States and Canada. For more information, see http://www.