2000 Science in Society Awards

Presented Feburary 17, 2001, at the NASW reception in San Francisco

By Carol Cruzan Morton

Stories about a contentious set of 9,000-year-old human bones found in the Pacific Northwest, dauntless AIDS-prevention efforts targeting women in Africa, the complex scientific challenge of global warming, academic integrity in peril from commercially sponsored research, and the fight over genetically engineered food all earned top honors for journalists in the 2000 Science in Society Journalism Awards, presented by the National Association of Science Writers.

Being honored at a February 17 award ceremony at the Exploratorium, in San Francisco, are Carol Ezzell, a writer and editor Scientific American; Kitta MacPherson, a science writer for the Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ); Jon Palfreman, an independent producer writing for WGBH-TV's Frontline and NOVA series; Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn, writing for the Atlantic Monthly; and Michael Tymchuk, a reporter for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. Winners will receive $1,000 and a certificate of recognition.

NASW holds the independent competition annually to honor outstanding investigative and interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact for good and ill. The award program aims to recognize and encourage critical, probing works in six categories — newspapers, magazines, television, radio, web, and book — without subsidy from any professional or commercial interest.

In the magazine category, the judges awarded a prize to each of two equally outstanding entries. Ezzell was recognized for her story "Care for a Dying Continent," published in the May 2000 Scientific American. The article examined the African AIDS epidemic by focusing on women and girls targeted for prevention efforts in Zimbabwe. The article effectively explored the sensitive, almost taboo issues of sexual practices and gender dynamics, which play major roles in an epidemic that is killing a generation of adults. Ezzell documented hope in the midst of the despairing scale of HIV infection in Zimbabwe: the official estimate of one-in-four is optimistic.

"I've never done something this personal," said Ezzell. "These people have shared such private things. I felt such a responsibility to do right by people who shared their stories with me. I wanted strongly for people to see the faces and identify with people as human beings."

Her hard work landed interviews with those whose lives are being profoundly affected — orphans, HIV-infected prostitutes, a traditional healer, and women impregnated and infected with AIDS by "sugar daddies" (older men with money who look to teenage girls for sex). The story, in many ways atypical for the magazine, was written first in capsules, which she wove together in a smooth narrative with the help of John Rennie, editor in chief of Scientific American.

In Africa, the plight of the individuals Ezzell interviewed moved her and South African photojournalist Karin Retief to stock the pantry of one family and assist other sources. Retief also purchased medicine for the rash of one HIV-infected person after she learned during the photo session that he had no money. Back in New York, Ezzell has raised money to help one woman buy a knitting machine so she can make sweaters to help support her family. Finding the line between journalistic ethics and personal compassion, Ezzell did not offer money or assistance before the interviews, aiming not to create a relationship where a grateful source would reveal too much with later regrets. She was especially careful to inform her sources living with HIV infection about how she would use the information in a magazine and told them they could retract their interviews at any time. "We're people first and journalists second," Ezzell said. "We can get a good story without hurting anyone."

In the other magazine award, Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn were honored for "The Kept University," published in the March 2000 Atlantic Monthly. The writers thoroughly assessed the issues surrounding industry involvement in academia, providing a tour de force of reporting and writing on one of the most salient science-and-society issues of today. By covering so much ground and recent history, it provides one-stop reading about the clash between profits and academic freedom and the perhaps unintended consequences of the Bayh-Dole Act. It is well backgrounded but also very readable, personalizing what could be a dry story by describing events, individuals, and interest groups.

There's a real value in tackling something really, really big and then pulling back and connecting the dots.

Brooklyn-based freelance writers Press and Washburn credit a grant from the Open Society Institute, in New York, for the opportunity to delve deep into the commercialization of higher education. The piece was the first of several feature articles in different magazines examining the privatization of various areas of public life. Press and Washburn also credit Atlantic Monthly for giving writers the space to tackle such large policy issues for a popular audience. "There's a real value in tackling something really, really big and then pulling back and connecting the dots for people," Washburn said. "Often there's a bigger story that's not being told."

"We initially thought the piece would be limited to conflicts of interest in science, but the Bayh-Dole Act, which allowed universities to patent federally funded research for the first time, opened the door to bigger changes that affected so many areas of academic life," said Washburn, who is now on a fellowship from the New America Foundation in Washington, D.C. "Very quickly as we started to get into the subject we realized there was a much broader cultural shift happening in these institutions, raising concerns about public good, research and the educational mission of our nation's universities."

MacPherson won the newspaper category with her series "Food Fight — What Hath Science Wrought?" published in the Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) as a four-part series beginning Dec. 5, 1999. Epitomizing the role of a newspaper science writer, MacPherson composed a balanced and unsensationalized primer for the lay public on the complicated topic of genetic engineering of food. She deftly examined the issues in a concise style, never writing down to her readers, and maintained an easy narrative flow. The series explored the potential benefits, risks, and scientific uncertainties on a global scale, while weaving in regional sources and examples from the scientific and farming communities.

The idea for "Food Fight" came when MacPherson observed the public reaction to reports that monarch butterflies might be adversely affected by genetically engineered crops. "No one, not even Michael Crichton, could have dreamed up a more interesting story," said MacPherson. "Even on the surface, things looked interesting — could cold-hearted technology be mowing down a magnificent aspect of nature?"

For the story, she mucked around farms in rural New Jersey, checked in with experts at nearby Rutgers University, and traveled to North Carolina and London, England. She expected scientists to be lined up on one side of the debate, but found unsettling dissension among the ranks of researchers. "Beyond the public's deep fascination with the food supply and fears about future directions of genetic engineering, the most interesting aspect of the story, for me, remains the areas of contention between scientists — disputes over environmental effects and unanticipated allergic/toxic reactions of consumers," MacPherson said. "It's exciting to think that we can go along with scientists as they build a consensus on this all-important topic. In a way, it would have been easier if there was a mainstream opinion to build the story around. But it wouldn't have been as much fun."

Jon Palfreman received his third Science in Society award for the television documentary "What's Up with the Weather?", produced for Frontline and NOVA. The show first aired on WGBH-TV, in Boston, on April 18, 2000. Palfreman refused to paint global warming — arguably the most contentious global-scale science issue of our day — as a black and white problem. The show leads viewers step by step through the evidence to the key take-home points: that the carbon dioxide level is indeed rising, that we are affecting and accelerating that rise, and that our science can't yet predict what the precise climatic outcome will be. More than just fact-laden voice-overs and lush location videography, the program lays out the debate and sorts through the confusion without preaching or judging in what may be the best explanation of this topic to a lay audience in any medium to date.

When approached with the idea by Frontline and NOVA, Palfreman had reservations about tackling the unpromising story. After all, there were no immediate victims. Repercussions of global warming were somewhere in the future, possibly to strangers. There was no easily identifiable culprit — other than all of us whose collective driving and air-conditioning contributes a large share of greenhouse gases. The statistical deviation at the heart of the problem was hard to grasp and to illustrate. People usually understood the story through ideology and politics.

"Making the film was very hard, perhaps the most difficult one I have done," Palfreman said about the year-long project. "It's a difficult subject for people to engage with: What is at issue are global averages of weather over hundreds of years, not the weather where we live?"

Tymchuk received an award for his radio piece "Kennewick Man: Bones of Contention," which aired on the Nov. 2, 1999 "Ideas" show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The richly layered narrative explains how the Kennewick Man, named for the location in eastern Washington where his bones were discovered several years ago, helped change the understanding of who the first Americans were and examines the sometimes contentious archeological methods and technology used to explore those theories. The radio documentary then explored the ethics of examining the skeletal remains and the court battle over who should control "The Ancient One," scientists or aboriginal tribes.

The subject intrigued Tymchuk. Trained as an anthropologist, he had spent 12 years in the museum business before becoming a reporter. When he set out on a one-week tour of the Pacific Northwest to gather audio, he encountered sources who were tired and angry about the sometimes sensational coverage of the analysis of the bones of the Kennewick Man. The more he read and talked to people in the aboriginal community, he came to see their point of view, helping him achieve his goal of balanced coverage.

"It was the history of North America, the history of peopling, and the history of colonialization all wrapped into one story, with spiritualism, politics and the law thrown in," Tymchuk said. He attributes some of the success of his story to a good producer — Kathleen Flaherty — and to interviews where he played the devil's advocate role. "Even if I was very sympathetic, I pushed them and apologized afterward," he said. "I got good emotional tape."

No one, not even Michael Crichton, could have dreamed up a more interesting story.

This year, the Science in Society awards expanded from three to six categories (newspapers, magazines, television, radio, web, and book). No prizes were awarded in the new web and book categories, however, because in the judgment of the committee entries did not sufficiently meet the competition's main criterion — a work that explores or explicates the role or ramifications of scientific discovery within the broader society. Material about advances in sciences, however significant and well-written, was not eligible unless it also told why it matters.

The award committee was co-chaired by Beryl Benderly, freelance and book author, and Carol Cruzan Morton, freelance and science writer for Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center. Freelance Stephen Hart advised on entry criteria for the new web category. In the first stage of judging, finalists were selected from more than 140 entries by committees composed of Jennie Duschek, freelance; Sara Finkelstein, Production Group; Robert Finn, freelance and ScienceWriters; Stephen Hart, freelance; Robert Irion, freelance and Science; David Kestenbaum, National Public Radio; Dianne Lange, freelance; Mary Miller, freelance and Exploratorium; Lori Oliwenstein, freelance and USC Health Sciences; Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University; Charles Petit, U.S. News & World Report; Carol Rogers, University of Maryland; Joel Shurkin, HopkinsHealth; Curt Suplee, National Science Foundation; Robert Uth, National Productions and New Voyage Communications; and Gretchen Vogel, Science. Winners were chosen by the final judging committee of J. Kelly Beaty, Sky and Telescope; Larry Bernard, Schepens Eye Research Institute; Boyce Rensberger, MIT/Knight Journalism Fellowships; Richard Saltus, Boston Globe; and Carolyn Schatz, Harvard Women's Health Watch.

The deadline for submission of entries for the 2002 Science in Society Awards is July 1, 2001, for work published or broadcast in North America between June 1, 2000, and May 31, 2001.

Book

No award given

Magazine

Carol Ezzell

Care for a Dying Continent

Scientific American

Carol Ezzell was recognized for her story “Care for a Dying Continent” published in the May 2000 Scientific American. The article examined the African AIDS epidemic by focusing on women and girls targeted by prevention efforts in Zimbabwe. The article effectively explored the sensitive, almost taboo issues of sexual practices and gender dynamics, which play major roles in an epidemic that is killing a generation of adults. Ezzell documented hope in the midst of the despairing scale of HIV infection in Zimbabwe — the official estimate of one-in-four is optimistic.

Carol Ezzell is a writer and editor at Scientific American. She has been a science writer and editor for more than 15 years, specializing in biomedicine and biology. She has worked for the science journal Nature, the science newsweekly Science News, Bio/World, (a daily fax newspaper covering biotechnology) and the Journal of NIH Research. She currently serves on the board of the National Association of Science Writers and as the treasurer of Science Writers in New York. Among her awards and honors are the Science in Society Award conferred by the National Association of Science Writers and the Pan American Health Organization’s award for excellence in journalism.

Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn

The Kept University

Atlantic Monthly

Eyal Press and Jennifer Washburn were honored for “The Kept University”, published in the March 2000 The Atlantic Monthly. The writers thoroughly assessed the issues surrounding industry involvement in academia, providing a tour de force of reporting and writing on one of the most salient science and society issues of today. By covering so much ground and recent history, it provides one-stop reading about the clash between profits and academic freedom and the perhaps unintended consequences of the Bayh-Dole Act. It is well backgrounded but also very readable, personalizing what could be a dry story by describing events, individuals and interest groups.

Newspaper

Kitta MacPherson

Food Fight—What Hath Science Wrought

Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ)

Kitta MacPherson won the newspaper category with her series "Food Fight — What Hath Science Wrought?" published in the Star-Ledger (Newark, NJ) as a four-part series beginning Dec. 5, 1999. Epitomizing the role of a newspaper science writer, MacPherson composed a balanced and unsensationalized primer for the lay public on the complicated topic of genetic engineering of food. She deftly examined the issues in a concise style, never writing down to her readers, and maintained an easy narrative flow. The series explored the potential benefits, risks, and scientific uncertainties on a global scale, while weaving in regional sources and examples from the scientific and farming communities.

Kitta MacPherson has been the science writer at the Star-Ledger since 1983. She is particularly interested in the ways that science affects the public. As a result, she has written about everything from West Nile virus to genetically modified food. In an award-winning series of articles, she profiled a group of cancer researchers working at the edges of science.

In her career, she has covered the breakthrough reaction in fusion power at Princeton University, witnessed the day-long jubilation experienced by Nobel Prize winners and recorded the often-tedious but all-important progress of the scientific endeavor. She has also sailed with marine biologists at Rutgers University and soared with the theoretical physicists at the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton. MacPherson joined the paper in 1981, covering Paterson and its environs, from its rough-and-tumble politics to some infamous criminal trials.

She lives in West Orange, N.J., with her husband, attorney Walter Lucas, and their three children. Whenever she can, she surfs off the Jersey shore.

Radio

Michael Tymchuk

“Kennewick Man — Bones of Contention”

Canadian Broadcasting Corp.

Michael Tymchuk received an award for his radio piece “Kennewick Man — Bones of Contention,” which aired on the Nov. 2, 1999, “Ideas” show of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation. The richly layered narrative explains how the Kennewick Man, named for the location in Eastern Washington where his bones were discovered several years ago, helped change the understanding of who the first Americans were and examines the sometimes contentious archeological methods and technology used to explore those theories. The radio documentary then explored the ethics of examining the skeletal remains and the court battle over who should control “The Ancient One,” scientists or aboriginal tribes.

Television

Jon Palfreman

What’s Up With The Weather

WGBH-TV’s Frontline/PBS

Jon Palfreman received his third Science in Society award for the television documentary "What’s Up with the Weather?" produced for Frontline and NOVA. The show first aired on WGBH-TV in Boston on April 18, 2000. Palfreman refused to paint global warming — arguably the most contentious global-scale science issue of our day — as a black and white problem. The show leads viewers step by step through the evidence to the key take-home points: that the carbon dioxide level is indeed rising, that we are affecting and accelerating that rise, and that our science can’t yet predict what the precise climatic outcome will be. More than just fact-laden voice overs and lush location videography, the program lays out the debate and sorts through the confusion without preaching or judging in what may be the best explanation of this topic to a lay audience in any medium to date.

Jon Palfremanis one of the few producers to work consistently for both PBS’s Nova and Frontline. A veteran science writer and producer for both British and American television, he has made more than 30 PBS documentaries, including the Peabody Award winning series, “The Machine that Changed the World,” and the Emmy winning PBS’s NOVA program, “Siamese Twins.”

In recent years Palfreman has specialized in complex and controversial stories on the intersection of science, politics, and law. These include the Frontline documentaries “Prisoners of Science,” a documentary about autism; “The Nicotine War"; “Currents of Fear,” which was about the alleged link between power lines and cancer; “Breast Implants on Trial,” which was about the silicon implant controversy; “Nuclear Reaction,” which was a critical analysis of America’s attitudes on nuclear energy; and “Last Battle of the Gulf War,” which examined Gulf War Syndrome.

Palfreman graduated from University College, London, with First Class Honors in Physics and has an M.S. degree in history and philosophy of science from Sussex University.

Web

No award given

2000 Science in Society Journalism Awards committee

AWARD CHAIRS

  • Carol Cruzan Morton, freelancer and science writer, Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center, Boston
  • Beryl Benderly, freelancer and book author, Washington, D.C.

SCREENING SUB-COMMITTEE

  • Jennie Duschek, freelance
  • Sara Finkelstein, Production Group
  • Robert Finn, freelance and ScienceWriters
  • Stephen Hart, freelance
  • Robert Irion, freelance and Science
  • David Kestenbaum, National Public Radio
  • Dianne Lange, freelance
  • Mary Miller, freelance and Exploratorium
  • Lori Oliwenstein, freelance and USC Health Sciences
  • Sidney Perkowitz, Emory University
  • Charles Petit, U.S. News & World Report
  • Carol Rogers, University of Maryland
  • Joel Shurkin, HopkinsHealth
  • Curt Suplee, National Science Foundation
  • Robert Uth, National Productions and New Voyage Communications
  • Gretchen Vogel, Science

SELECTION SUB-COMMITTEE

  • J. Kelly Beaty, Sky and Telescope
  • Larry Bernard, Schepens Eye Research Institute
  • Boyce Rensberger, Massachusetts Institute of Technology/Knight Journalism Fellowships
  • Richard Saltus, Boston Globe
  • Carolyn Schatz, Harvard Women’s Health Watch
  • Stephen Hart, freelance, advised on entry criteria for the new Web category