Six entries featuring notable explanatory and investigative reporting on the global COVID-19 pandemic are among the winners of the 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
Ed Yong, a staff writer for The Atlantic, won for in-depth reporting on the likely course of the pandemic and the patchwork American response. A team of reporters for Kaiser Health News and the Associated Press won for an investigation of how ill-equipped state and local health programs had become when the pandemic hit. Sarah Kaplan of The Washington Post was honored for her sensitive look at how the novel coronavirus killed one of the early victims of the disease.
Other pandemic-related awards went to a video team for Vox, a podcast team for “Science Vs” from Gimlet Media, and a team from Kompas.com in Indonesia for an entry in the Children’s Science News category.
The Kompas.com team was the first winner from Indonesia since the awards contest went global in 2015. Geoffrey Kamadi, a freelancer based in Nairobi, was the first winner from Kenya for his piece on threats to the Tana River Basin ecosystem.
The awards, administered by the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), recognize distinguished science reporting for a general audience. The program, endowed by The Kavli Foundation and open to journalists worldwide, is celebrating its 75th anniversary in 2020. There were entries from 54 countries this year.
Rob Stein and Jane Greenhalgh shared an award in the Audio category with NPR colleague Joe Neel for stories on a patient with sickle cell disease who received a new treatment using the CRISPR gene-editing tool. It is the third time Stein has won the award and the second time for Greenhalgh. Alex Kuffner of The Providence Journal won the award for a second time for his story on Rhode Island’s coastal erosion. Joss Fong of the Vox video team also won the award for a second time.
A Gold Award ($5,000) and a Silver Award ($3,500) are presented in each of eight categories. Independent panels of science journalists select the winners.
“These talented and diverse winners highlight the critical importance of informed journalism both on urgent issues of the day ― a global pandemic, the crisis of climate change ― and on efforts to understand nature at its most basic, from the complexity of the human immune system to the surprising behavior of slime molds,” said Sudip Parikh, CEO of AAAS and executive publisher of the Science family of journals.
The winners will receive their awards in a virtual ceremony held in conjunction with the 2021 AAAS Annual Meeting in February.
The full list of winners of the 2020 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards:
Science Reporting – Large Outlet
Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht, Anna Maria Barry-Jester and Michelle R. Smith
Kaiser Health News and The Associated Press
July 1, 2020
Lauren Weber, Laura Ungar, Hannah Recht and Anna Maria Barry-Jester of Kaiser Health News teamed up with Michelle R. Smith of The Associated Press for an extensive investigation into decades of public health defunding that has exacerbated the impact of the coronavirus pandemic. The team uncovered just how ill-equipped state and local health programs had become when the pandemic hit. When a bungled federal response left local health departments to often fend for themselves, the pandemic placed an overwhelming new strain on these underfunded systems. The reporters spoke with “more than 150 public health workers, policymakers and experts, analyzed spending records from hundreds of state and local health departments, and surveyed statehouses.” Judge Alexandra Witze, a freelance science journalist, called the story, “an exhaustive and eye-opening investigation into a state and local story that has not gotten as much coverage as the failed federal response to the pandemic.” As AP’s Michelle R. Smith put it, “The story we told about the chronic underfunding and defunding of the public health system in the United States is well known among those in the field but little understood outside of it. Public health workers provided real world examples of how this has hobbled the nation’s response to COVID-19 and other public health threats.” Lauren Weber of Kaiser Health News added: “Public health workers are sometimes paid so little that they qualify for public aid. Working seven-day weeks for months on end, they fear pay freezes, public backlash and losing their jobs — even amid a pandemic. It is an honor to tell their story.”
The Washington Post
April 14, 2020
Sarah Kaplan told the heart-wrenching story of Keith Redding, an early March COVID-19 victim who became an important case study for doctors battling the virus. Redding first checked into the hospital with a suspected pneumonia infection. Early CT scans showed a lung symptom doctors have come to associate with the virus called “ground glass opacity.” Redding later experienced a cytokine storm, another tell-tale effect of the virus that occurs when a patient’s stressed immune system mounts an overaggressive internal attack. “This is the tragedy of the coronavirus,” writes Kaplan. “It hijacks the systems that are supposed to protect us. It tricks the body into betraying itself.” Between her vivid scientific descriptions, Kaplan also manages to reveal the loss faced by Redding’s loving wife Dana. Sarah Zielinski, managing editor at Science News for Students, applauded how Kaplan “deftly married coronavirus science with a touching story of loss to create a moving tale that drove home to the reader just how serious and deadly the pandemic was becoming.” Kaplan said Redding’s wife chose to share his story ― and a 3-D image of his infected lungs ― because she believed it would save lives if more people understood the pandemic’s human toll. “I’m grateful for this recognition of Keith’s life and Dana’s courage, and I hope that those who read their love story are moved to make their communities safer from this devastating disease,” Kaplan said.
Science Reporting – Small Outlet
Science Africa (Kenya)
Sept. 17, 2019
In the opening of his piece, freelancer Geoffrey Kamadi described in some detail the flora and fauna of Kenya’s Tana River Basin, a biodiversity hotspot with a dozen protected areas. “But looks might be deceiving,” he noted. “As a matter of fact, all indications suggest that this almost fantastic, even story-book portrayal of nature in its largely intact and unperturbed splendor, belies an ecological tragedy that is gradually unfolding.” Kamadi went on to explain that five dams on the Tana River have reduced the outflow of fresh water to the Indian Ocean, allowing salty sea water to flow increasingly farther up the river channel during high tide. For local farmers, the impacts include yellowing banana plants, reduced rice production, cattle unable to graze on fields overgrown with salt-loving elephant grass. Native wildlife also is affected. Birds accustomed to eating freshwater fish have developed a taste for salted fish left by locals to dry in the sun. A planned High Grand Falls dam and other infrastructure projects will only make matters worse, Kamadi reports. Meanwhile scientists are trying to improve data collection on the river basin as a crucial step toward better understanding of the fragile ecosystem. Witze called Kamadi’s story “a deeply reported, sprawling and evocative look at a threatened river ecosystem.” Kamadi said the award “means a great deal to me, as it will only encourage me to continue writing about science.”
The Providence Journal
Dec. 22, 2019
Coastal storms and rising sea levels are chipping away at the land mass of mainland Rhode Island and nearby Block Island, which is a part of Rhode Island, according to Alex Kuffner’s richly reported look at “the smallest state and why it’s getting smaller.” From his opening description of the perilous state of Block Island’s landfill ― located on a scenic bluff overlooking the sea ― to his catalogue of receding beaches along the coast of mainland Rhode Island, Kuffner explains not only what has been happening but why coastal erosion poses a serious long-term threat. As Kuffner writes, “Normal wave action has an effect, but coastal storms are the real drivers of change. Scientists expect them to become more frequent and more powerful as the planet continues to warm. Sea-level rise is only adding to their impact, pushing storm surges higher, extending their reach inland, and amplifying their ability to tear away at the shore. With higher seas, even weaker storms could do heavy damage.” While coastal erosion “is not the sexiest of topics,” Zielinski said, “Alex Kuffner brings this alive for his audience with strong reporting and great storytelling.” Kuffner commented: “It means so much to win recognition for this work about the threat posed by rising seas to our shores. With more than 400 miles of coastline, Rhode Island is more vulnerable than other places and may signal changes to come elsewhere in the world.”
Science Reporting – In-Depth (More than 5,000 words)
March 25, 2020
April 29, 2020
May 20, 2020
Ed Yong of The Atlantic told his readers some hard truths about the COVID-19 pandemic. Scientists and public health specialists had long warned that such a global outbreak was inevitable. The United States ― despite its high score on the Global Health Security Index ― failed to measure up when tested by the novel coronavirus, partly because the White House had become what Yong called a “ghost town of scientific expertise.” In March when the pandemic was starting to grab hold in the U.S., Yong wrote: “Rudderless, blindsided, lethargic, and uncoordinated, America has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis to a substantially worse degree than what every health expert I’ve spoken with had feared.” He predicted it would be difficult, if not impossible, for the United States to catch up. In his reporting, Yong explained the basic biology of the virus, the unpredictability of the disease it causes, and reasons why the pandemic continues to be so befuddling. He cautioned that in a pandemic, “the strongest attractor of trust shouldn’t be confidence, but the recognition of one’s limits, the tendency to point at expertise beyond one’s own, and the willingness to work as part of a whole.” Robert Lee Hotz, science writer for The Wall Street Journal, called Yong’s stories “deeply knowledgeable, passionately written, prophetic, despairing and scolding” as well as “hugely influential in the moment they were published.” Ed Yong said: “I'm incredibly honored, especially since science journalism has never been so necessary, urgent, or vibrant. I’m indebted to my colleagues for raising the bar, and to my editors for not only polishing my prose, but also giving me the space, time and mandate to rise to the demands of this year.”
Chris Mooney, Steven Mufson, Juliet Eilperin, Salwan Georges, Simon Denyer, John Muyskens and Carolyn Van Houten
The Washington Post
2°C: Beyond the Limit (series)
Aug. 13, 2019
Sept. 11, 2019
Nov. 19, 2019
In three stories from their "2°C: Beyond the Limit” series, the Washington Post team reported that climate change is real and already is occurring globally. They noted that a 2-degree Celsius average temperature rise has emerged among scientists and policymakers as a global benchmark for extreme climate change.
They took a closer look at some of the major climate change hot spots in the United States and elsewhere. By analyzing more than a century of NOAA temperature data, the team located several U.S. areas that are nearing or have already crossed the 2-degree Celsius mark. “More than 1 in 10 Americans — 34 million people — are living in rapidly heating regions, including New York City and Los Angeles,” they reported. “Seventy-one counties have already hit the 2-degree Celsius mark.” Seamless graphics and powerful photography from hot spots put a sobering face on climate change’s looming catastrophe. Deborah Nelson, associate professor of investigative reporting at the University of
Maryland’s Philip Merrill College of Journalism called the stories “a potent mix of scientific analysis and shoe-leather reporting that reveals the here-and-now harm from extreme global warming in dramatic numbers and unforgettable imagery from around the world.” Speaking for the team, Chris Mooney said: “We were inspired to look closely at how certain parts of the globe with outsized levels of warming were faring. It began with a few anecdotes and as it developed, became a vast data project as we realized that these hot spots were early warning signs of what everyone else will experience soon enough. We are thrilled by the recognition.”
Sept. 11, 2019
In a gripping look at a public health crisis in the Democratic Republic of Congo, Amy Maxmen told how responders from the World Health Organization battled not only the deadly Ebola virus in a time of violent political unrest, but also deep-seated suspicion of outsiders by local residents who had suffered from more than a century of conflict, exploitation and neglect from their government and the world at large. Despite efforts of about 700 WHO staff ― almost all of them African ― in cities and towns where Ebola was spreading, Maxmen wrote that the death rate was soaring at 67% because the therapies, including a new Ebola vaccine, weren’t reaching all in need. “Many residents just didn’t accept that Ebola responders were there to help,” she wrote. That greatly complicated efforts to trace contacts of those who had the disease, with fewer than half of those diagnosed with Ebola entered on contact tracing lists. “It’s no coincidence that the world’s two largest Ebola outbreaks have exploded in densely populated regions of countries with ineffective health systems, extreme poverty and a history of exploitative colonization and conflict,” Maxmen wrote. Rami Tzabar, a science editor at the BBC, said her story “captures the futility and frustration but allows you to believe and hope in the efforts of strikingly brave, or just stubborn, individuals.” Maxmen thanked the photographer on the piece, John Wessels, her editors at Nature and the Pulitzer Center on Crisis Reporting for support. She said decades of conflict and hardship in the Democratic Republic of Congo made the Ebola outbreak “easy for the rest of the world to ignore, seeing it as just another tragedy in a remote region of the globe. I hope my feature stands in the way of such neglect and reminds people of our shared humanity.”
Maya L. Kapoor
High Country News
July 1, 2020
Maya L. Kapoor told the complex story of the threatened Yaqui catfish, the only catfish native to the Western United States. A history of colonization and anthropogenic climate change have destroyed the animal’s natural desert habitat, putting it under threat of extinction. “The current extinction crisis speaks to an uncomfortable truth,” writes Kapoor. “In a land of finite resources, every choice, big or small,” she says, “means choosing what kinds of habitat exist, even far away from town. And that means choosing which species survive.” Kapoor’s careful and thorough reporting presents a story beyond the fate of a single species, weaving together meticulously recorded field data from local research teams, a rich tapestry of Indigenous history and the deeply entrenched impact of colonization on the American west. “Maya L. Kapoor’s gorgeous narrative of scientists working to save an endangered desert catfish masterfully captures so many urgent issues of our time,” said author and freelance journalist Christie Aschwanden, including “the lingering effects of colonialism, Indigenous rights, U.S.-Mexico relations, Trump’s border wall, and the vexing science of how to save a species from extinction.” Maya Kapoor said she had read an academic article in 2017 predicting the imminent extinction of the Yaqui catfish in the United States. “It’s rare to watch a species going extinct in real time, so I wanted to report on the history and possible future of this species, and of the Southwestern rivers where it evolved,” Kapoor said.
Spot News/Feature Reporting (20 minutes or less)
Oregon Public Broadcasting
April 28, 2020
Oregon Public Broadcasting’s engaging segment told how Mas Subramanian and his team at Oregon State University discovered a new shade of blue. Director Jes Burns recounted the history of YInMn Blue’s discovery and development. The new color was first created when a graduate student on Subramanian’s team heated manganese oxide for an unrelated experiment. The surprising result was a vibrant new shade of blue that is extremely stable and uniquely suited for commercial use. “I was blown away by the new blue,” said freelance journalist and author Angela Saini, “Such a clever little segment, made better by a great interviewee, reminding us that local science reporting is sometimes the best.” The video includes “just the right amount of science to understand the nature of the discovery without overwhelming the viewer,” said France 24 reporter Mairead Dundas. Tony Bartelme, projects reporter for The Post and Courier in Charleston, S.C., agreed, calling the story “a beautifully told piece about a color that will leave you thinking differently about blue and other colors.” Burns said she was captivated by the science behind the new blue pigment. “When I met the scientist involved, “ she said, “I knew it was a story I wanted to tell ― one about the thrill of discovery, the wonder of curiosity and the beautiful and unexpected connections that happen when you explore.”
Joss Fong, Áron Filkey and Joey Sendaydiego
June 4, 2020
Joss Fong, Áron Filkey and Joey Sendaydiego of Vox took a close look at COVID-19 case fatality rates, weaving a narrative that included emotional human stories and underlying pandemic statistics. The video used white- and blue-colored lights as a visual representation of fatality statistics, digging into how excess deaths are calculated, and distinguishing the important difference between the case fatality rate and the fatality rate for all who may be infected, whether diagnosed or not. Larry Engel, associate professor at American University’s School of Communication, said that the video “makes essential statistics and probability ― not necessarily the most visual of things ― clear and interesting for a lay audience.” The video helped make sense of the overwhelming amount of information and statistics during the spreading pandemic. “At a time when reporting on COVID-19 was overflowing with faceless statistics,” said Dundas, “this report managed to remind us what all these numbers mean at a personal level.” Fong said her team “wanted to create a video that would help viewers understand some of the mortality statistics that they would be seeing for months to come, without losing sight of the real human beings and families behind each of those numbers.”
In-Depth Reporting (more than 20 minutes)
Uncommon Productions for PBS Independent Lens
April 27, 2020
Bill Haney, writer, producer and director of “Jim Allison: Breakthrough,” tells the story of an unconventional scientist and his path to a Nobel Prize. Shattered as a youth by the loss of his mother to cancer, Allison became a headstrong, long-haired, music-loving student fascinated with the immune system and its potential for combatting cancer. He eventually led a research team exploring the mechanisms of T-cells, the immune system’s hunter-killer cells. In the 1990s, his team and another group showed there was a molecule on T-cells that acts like an off switch or a brake pedal when T-cells encounter an infected cell. Allison’s group developed an antibody to disable this off-switch and keep T-cells in attack mode. It helped usher in the use of immunotherapy to treat a variety of cancers. The film shows the obstacles Allison faced, including skepticism by peers and the high cost of long-term research, before he was able to demonstrate that a new kind of treatment could work. “When you have a central character who is a harmonica-playing, cancer-fighting scientist, you probably have a good film going,” Engel of American University. “Add a Texas drawl and Willie Nelson and you end up with a remarkable science film filled with scientific twists and turns told so well that I didn’t want it to end.” Haney said he was partly inspired to make the film “in response to the polarized nature of American society and the complex challenges we face. I was looking to make a film that united us all and, by example, inspired us to see how we can accomplish the extraordinary if we work wisely together.”
Jacques Mitsch and Laurent Mizrahi
Hauteville Productions for ARTE (France)
March 21, 2020
The Blob, a creature out of a science fiction horror film, has given its name to a baffling single-celled organism that has puzzled scientists around the world. Neither plant, animal nor mushroom, the organism ― called a slime mold ― has no eyes, mouth, stomach, or legs. But the researchers interviewed by the French team say it can, in effect, see, smell, digest and move around purposefully. It has neither a nervous system nor a brain, but it can solve problems and devise strategies as it moves. The Blob, whose scientific name is Physarum polycephalum, is being studied by biologists, physicists and mathematicians who are developing a field of science in which, the filmmakers say, “intelligence” no longer implies the need for a brain. Audrey Dussutour, one of the scientists interviewed, notes that interest in the Blob may have practical implications. The organism and its slime mold cousins might be able to clean up polluted soils as they move about. The Blob also feeds on bacteria and fungi, secreting potentially useful antibiotics and antifungals. Angela Saini called the winning entry “the kind of film that even those who think they have zero interest in science will find utterly fascinating. Equal parts funny and informative. I plan to watch it again... and again.” Director Jacques Mitsch said the film “is first and foremost a film about basic research that needs to be encouraged even more in these troubled times we live in.” Writer Laurent Mizrahi added, “I'm so happy to see our work on the Blob be appreciated worldwide.”
Wendy Zukerman, Rose Rimler, Meryl Horn, Michelle Dang and Blythe Terrell
Science Vs (from Gimlet Media)
March 26, 2020
April 24, 2020
May 1, 2020
In three episodes of Gimlet Media’s “Science Vs” podcast, Australian podcaster and host Wendy Zukerman and the "Science Vs" team dug into the science behind three coronavirus controversies. The first investigated the legitimacy of chloroquine as a coronavirus treatment. Zukerman expertly explained the mechanisms that made this medication a consideration for coronavirus treatment and takes a deeper look at some of the studies that prompted the initial chloroquine hype. BBC science correspondent Victoria Gill said the podcast’s ability to “get to grips so quickly with such a fast-moving, complicated issue as the prospective treatments for the coronavirus was impressive.” The second episode looked at what it would take to build the coronavirus in a lab, debunking the idea that the virus had been created by Chinese scientists. In the third story, the team described an outbreak involving a Japanese cruise ship where more than 700 passengers tested positive for the virus but only half experienced symptoms. Zukerman discussed the possibility that there were many asymptomatic “silent spreaders” involved and assessed whether available antibody testing was accurate enough to provide answers. Rich Monastersky, chief features editor for Nature in Washington, D.C., liked how all three episodes “explored the nuances of discoveries and controversies, and provided important information for the public at a time when rumors and misinformation were rampant.” Editor Blythe Terrell said Science Vs rarely covers breaking news but scrapped its season plans and doubled production when the coronavirus emerged. The team grappled with research advances in real time, she said, “trying to help listeners make sense of the swirling information, misinformation and disinformation.”
Rob Stein, Joe Neel and Jane Greenhalgh
December 25, 2019
July 29, 2019
June 23, 2020
In three stories from NPR’s “All Things Considered,” Rob Stein and his colleagues Joe Neel and Jane Greenhalgh told the story of Victoria Gray, a patient with sickle cell disease who received the first use of a groundbreaking new CRISPR treatment for her genetic disorder. Stein followed the emotional narrative with grace and care, exploring both the science and the impact that science has on human lives. The third piece of the series followed up with Gray a year later, during a pandemic and the Black Lives Matter protests. Monastersky said he appreciates how Stein and his colleagues gave the “time and space to convey the how the disease has affected [Gray], what it's like being part of a clinical trial, and the way it has altered her life.” Throughout the emotional narrative, Stein also managed to dive into the complicated science behind gene editing. The stories on a promising treatment for sickle-cell disease “stand out as an exceptionally moving exploration of cutting-edge science and its impact on people,” Monastersky said. Gill said the story defies the assumption that a story must choose between technical accuracy and emotion. “This manages both,” she said. “It’s an absorbing and emotional personal account, sensitively reported and embraces the fascinating detail of the science of CRISPR.” As CRISPR moved out of the lab and into clinical trials, Rob Stein said, he and his colleagues “were fortunate to win the trust” of the first patient in the United States with a genetic disorder treated using CRISPR and to “exclusively tell this extraordinary woman’s inspiring story in real time.”
Children’s Science News
Tracy Vonder Brink
Tracy Vonder Brink introduced her young readers to Eba, the conservation canine, who helps scientists find floating scat from orcas, also called killer whales. By studying the scat, the researchers can learn a lot about the health and diet of the animals ― and the pregnancy status of the females ― without disturbing them. “All kids are fascinated with poop, but that's not what makes this story so fantastic,” said judge Christine Dell’Amore, senior editor on the animals desk at National Geographic. “The approach of using Eba as a ‘spokesdog’ for orca conservation is an ingenious way to both educate and entertain.” She and her fellow judges said Vonder Brink’s story was very accessible to the target age group of three- to six-year-olds. “Engagingly and concisely written, with fun photographs, this story is a standout example of science journalism for children,” Dell’Amore said. “Eba and her fellow Conservation Canines do important work that helps endangered animals, and I loved showcasing this smart pup,” Vonder Brink said. “My thanks to the judges for recognizing science writing for preschoolers and to Dr. Deborah Giles for her help.”
Yunanto Utomo, Gregorius Jovinto, Bayu Adi Prakoso, Anggara Kusumaatmaja and Haman Haman
May 5, 2020
June 15, 2020
July 9, 2020
A team of Indonesian journalists and graphic artists for Kompas.com used a comic book format to explore the biology of the novel coronavirus that triggered a global pandemic. In a three-part series with 11- to 14-year-olds in mind, the team did not shy away from complexity and encouraged young readers to go on a journey of discovery. The series tells how coronaviruses were first identified, the changing understanding of their modes of action and impact on humans, and how science itself has been changing during the COVID-19 pandemic as researchers rely on new ways to get the latest research findings widely distributed. The series also presented an interactive game in which readers were asked to devise the best strategy for developing a COVID-19 vaccine, helping them understand the challenges developing countries face in the vaccine race not only because of limited technology but also because of inequities in vaccine access. Cathy Edwards of BBC, a producer of the popular “CrowdScience” program, called the Kompas.com entry engaging and “full of fascinating facts and stories of science and scientists’ stories, presented in an original comic panel format.” She added, “The interactive game was a fantastically innovative way to promote scientific understanding of vaccine development.” Yunanto Utomo, who led the Indonesian team, said: “For years, Kompas.com has created numerous experiments to engage youths. Recognition by AAAS and Kavli is very important for us and definitely will boost our spirit to continuously innovate. Kompas.com believes that engaging youths is the very first step to create future leaders who stand for science and are able to produce science-based policy.”