AAAS isn't usually regarded as fans of science journalism (well, unless it's people writing for Science) but that hasn't always been the case. Since 1945 they have honored science reporting for print and radio and later expanded that to television and now online reporting.
This year, an ambitious series on memory and the brain, a look at whether research supports widespread use of anti-cholesterol medications, and a broadcast account of the contentious battle over intelligent design in Dover, Pennsylvania, are among the winners of the 2008 AAAS Science Journalism Awards.
Panels of science journalists chose the winners of the awards, which are sponsored by Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research & Development, L.L.C.
"I never had more fun or learned more than during the months I spent in the lab researching this series," said Terry McDermott, who won the award in the large-newspaper category for his series on "Chasing Memory" in the Los Angeles Times. It was the last series he wrote for the paper — he was let go as part of the paper's effort to substantially reduce staff. McDermott previously had won the large-newspaper award in 1995 while he was at The Seattle Times.
Kara Platoni won in the small-newspaper category for stories in the East Bay Express about efforts of local scientists in the San Francisco-Oakland area to determine whether there is life elsewhere in the cosmos. "So many wonderful scientists gave me amazing sit-down interviews," Platoni said. "Each one felt like I was getting a graduate-level lecture for a class of one." Platoni also was laid off by her paper as part of a staff reduction.
"These are difficult times for print science journalism," said Alan I. Leshner, chief executive officer of AAAS and executive publisher of the journal Science. "The AAAS awards recognize outstanding science journalism at a time when resolving the pressing problems of our age will require a high degree of science literacy throughout society. We believe that readers want to see more well-written science stories, and we hope that newspapers are able to resist further economic pressures to cut science coverage."
John Carey of BusinessWeek, who won in the magazine category, said: "These are not the best of times for either science journalism or newsmagazines. Amid the gloom, winning the award is a big shot in the arm for me — and a validation that what we do still has value."
The award winners will receive $3,000 and a plaque at the 2009 AAAS Annual Meeting in Chicago in February.
"We are pleased to sponsor the Science Journalism Awards and the important work that is being done by these talented journalists," said Seema Kumar, vice president, Global R&D Communications at Johnson & Johnson Pharmaceutical Research and Development. "These reporters play a unique role in simplifying the complexities of science through thoughtful, insightful explanations and in inspiring young readers to pursue future careers in science and technology."
The winners of the 2008 AAAS Science Journalism Awards:
Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more
Los Angeles Times
"Chasing Memory" (series)
Aug. 19-22, 2007
The judges praised McDermott's ambitious, meticulously reported series on memory and the brain. McDermott described the efforts of neuroscientist Gary Lynch to answer such fundamental questions as: What happens in our brain when we encounter a new experience so that we can recall it at will tonight, tomorrow or in 2025? And what goes wrong when we can't remember? Andrew Revkin of The New York Times said the series "exploring the mysteries of memory and the meandering pathways at the frontiers of understanding was a superb example of narrative science journalism." Peter Spotts of the The Christian Science Monitor called it a "captivating, inside look at cutting-edge science, with all the triumphs and setbacks — and personal conflicts."
Small Newspaper—Circulation less than 100,000
East Bay Express
"In Search of Life" (series)
July 4, 2007 and July 11, 2007
Platoni introduced her readers to the work of local scientists searching for answers to perhaps the biggest scientific question of all: Are we alone in the universe? Platoni explored the field of astrobiology in a compelling two-part series. "Ms. Platoni took maximum advantage of the strong local presence of the institutions and scientists who could best tell the story," said Kathy Sawyer, a freelance writer who was formerly with The Washington Post. Revkin said Platoni "did a marvelous job of bringing the faraway questions surrounding astrobiology down to Earth and — particularly important — to the readers in her region."
Do Cholesterol Drugs Do Any Good?
Jan. 28, 2008
In a cover story for BusinessWeek, Carey wrote a thought-provoking, carefully documented piece looking at the question of whether the benefits of statin drugs may be overstated except in the case of high-risk heart patients. The story looked at the statistical methods used in research on statins, including the little-known but useful statistic called the "number needed to treat," or NNT. Carey also discussed the design of clinical trials aimed at proving the benefit of heart drugs and the underlying biochemistry of statins. Guy Gugliotta, a freelance science writer, called the story "informative, brightly written and a most welcome destruction of the conventional wisdom." Spotts said it was a "clear public service in highlighting the shortcomings of drug trials for cholesterol drugs."
Joseph McMaster, Gary Johnstone
"Judgment Day: Intelligent Design on Trial"
Nov. 13, 2007
The judges praised the two-hour NOVA broadcast for its careful, balanced presentation on the landmark Dover, Pennsylvania, court case that weighed the merits of discussing "intelligent design" in the science classroom. Through interviews with participants in the 2005 case, use of trial transcripts and reenactments of key courtroom moments, the broadcast captured the community turmoil surrounding the case, described the modern science of evolution and explained why U.S District Court Judge John E. Jones III ruled that intelligent design is a religious idea that should not be taught in public school science classrooms. Frank Roylance, a science writer for The Baltimore Sun who was on the judging panel, said the NOVA broadcast was "a very careful, methodical and sensitive presentation of a vital scientific question, with enormous social and political import." He added, "The filmmakers managed to be both clear and accurate with the science, and fair and sensitive to the beliefs of the ID proponents." Tina Hesman Saey of Science News said the program "brought to life the scientific process and really shows how we know what we know about the evolution of life on Earth."
"Meltdown: Inside Out"
Daniel Grossman did "an outstanding job of reporting the science of global warming in ice sheets, mountain glaciers and sea ice," said Mary Knudson, a freelance writer who also is faculty adviser for science-medical writing students at The Johns Hopkins University. Grossman's documentary report "addressed a complex and very important issue with sophistication and with a very strong grounding in science," said Marc Kaufman of The Washington Post. The judges were impressed with the range of Grossman's work and the fact that he served as both producer and reporter for the ambitious project. This is the third time that Grossman has won the award. He previously won awards in the online category in 2003 and 2005.
National Geographic News
Megafishes (three-part series)
"Megafishes project to size up real 'Loch Ness Monsters,'" July 24, 2007
"World's largest trout thrives in Mongolia — for now," Nov. 7, 2007
"Giant river stingrays found near Thai city," April 29, 2008
Stefan Lovgren traveled around the world to tell the story of monster species of fish and their habitat. "Using all of the tools available, Lovgren paints a compelling portrait of these gargantuan fish that most people would never get to see," said Seth Borenstein of Associated Press. "The images of the giant ray and the cannibalistic fish hook you, and the narrative reels you in." Warren Leary, a freelance writer formerly with The New York Times, called Lovgren's work "a fine entry that introduces the public to an interesting topic in an innovative way. Good content and fine visuals of fish that must be seen to be believed." Lovgren said reporting on the world's largest freshwater fish was "a real eye-opener for me. Many of these giants are on the brink of extinction, and the opportunity for documenting and studying them may soon be lost."
CHILDREN'S SCIENCE NEWS
Children's Science Donga
"Roadkill, Horror on Roads"
June 15, 2008
The judges liked the offbeat subject matter and the nice description of scientific investigation in Yoon Shin-Young's piece on the impact of highway roadkills on native species in South Korea. "Yoon Shin-Young's story was excellent," said Lila Guterman, a freelance writer formerly with The Chronicle of Higher Education. She said the piece was "interesting to read with lots of great examples, photos and graphics." Jean-Louis Santini, a science reporter for Agence France-Presse called it "an original piece that clearly presents the issues…a very attractive piece." Maggie Fox, science editor for Reuters, said the piece "took an unusual subject and made it interesting and educational" for the young readers.