Award Category Supports Unrecognized Reporters, Local Coverage
Years before Robert Lee Hotz was known as a leading science journalist, he worked at The News Virginian, a country daily in Waynesboro, Va., with a circulation of 11,000. In addition to writing obituaries, covering school board meetings, and providing whatever else was needed for the day’s edition, Hotz reported on the environment, filing articles on such topics as air and water pollution affecting the local community.
A series of such articles, on the cumulative poisoning of a popular fishing and recreational river, earned Hotz and intern Lee Bowman the 1977 AAAS Science Journalism Award (Kavli was added to the name of the awards in 2009) in the small newspaper category. It was that honor that not only helped Hotz along his science-writing career path, but pointed out that such a path existed. Bowman also went on to cover health and science as an award-winning reporter for Scripps Howard newspapers.
“I didn’t think I was doing science writing,” said Hotz, now a science columnist for the Wall Street Journal. “I was just doing the daily news. This was a bolt from the blue, and it was a moment of discovery.”
Hotz was so astonished when he received the call that he had won the award that he assumed it was a prank, he said, and asked for the phone number of the woman calling so he could call her back.
The career route that opened up to Hotz when he won his AAAS Science Journalism Award is just one example of how the small newspaper category of the competition has benefited journalists who are just getting started or who have not yet been recognized for their work.
In 2007, Jennifer Frazer won a AAAS Science Journalism Award for a detective story-style series describing how researchers tracked down a poisonous lichen that was behind mysterious deaths of elk in Wyoming. At the time, Frazer had been a reporter at the Wyoming Tribune-Eagle for just three years. She said the award was “an enormous confidence booster,” emboldening her to start her own blog, which got picked up by Scientific American. Frazer is now a network blogger at Scientific American, has appeared on the nationally syndicated Radiolab program, and is writing a book.
Azeen Ghorayshi was just beginning a graduate program in science communication when she found out she had won a 2013 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. She had been working as a calendar editor—and writing the occasional science-oriented enterprise piece, for the East Bay Express, a small urban news weekly in the San Francisco Bay Area. Her award-winning article reported on earthquake warning systems and California’s reluctance to invest in one.
“Winning an award for a piece I’d already written gave me the confidence that I could make a career out of something as specific as science journalism,” said Ghorayshi, who is now a reporter at BuzzFeed and will be featured in a weekly BuzzFeed short-form documentary series due to launch on Netflix in July 2018. “This award was a first for me, and it was really encouraging to see all the established writers who had won the award before me.”
Freelancer Sarah Wild had an equally dramatic experience when she won a 2017 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award. At the time, she was contemplating leaving science journalism. The market in South Africa, where she lives, had dried up, and making international connections with the few editors interested in science stories out of Africa was all but impossible. After a series she wrote for the Johannesburg Mail and Guardian—about hundreds of unidentified dead found each year in a single province in South Africa—won in the small newspaper category, she met more international editors at events associated with the award, and they were more willing to take a chance on her, Wild said.
On a personal note, Wild said the award was a bright light of encouragement in the brutally challenging world of freelance science reporting.
“Freelance journalism still comes with a great deal of rejection—stories do not fit a publication, or the timing is not right, or [stories are turned down for] many other reasons,” said Wild, who was also named the best science journalist in Africa in 2013 in the Siemens Profile Award competition and won the 2015 CNN African Journalist of the Year Award in the technology and innovation category. “The Kavli award is, in some way, an affirmation that it is not me.”
Hotz, who discovered the path toward science journalism after receiving his early-career award, found that editors viewed him differently because of his science specialization.
“At every one of the rungs of the ladder that I climbed,” Hotz said. “I was able to present myself as having a view of the world that encompassed research, and some of the less-understood underlying influences of the world we live in.”
All of the journalists interviewed for this article said they see tremendous value in small newspapers devoting time and resources to science stories.
“I think finding stories that are relevant to locals—in this case, earthquake prediction technology that could save lives when the next big earthquake hits the Bay Area,” said Ghorayshi, “makes it clear that science reporting sits at the same level as any other story that directly impacts people’s lives. These stories shape the world around us and it’s our job to call attention to them.”
Wild said she believes all media outlets should do science reporting, regardless of their size. “Science, health, and environmental reporting often show people another side of life,” she said. “It takes them out of their daily lives and opens a trapdoor into a world filled with wonder.”
Hotz explained that at the small daily where he started out as a journalist, readers knew the reporters, and the reporters knew the readers—creating a special dynamic in communication that needs to be preserved, especially where science coverage is concerned.
“There’s a level of trust and understanding,” said Hotz, who went on to win AAAS Science Journalism Awards at The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in 1987 and the Los Angeles Times in 1997, “which is especially important with science stories, where we’re all stepping outside of our comfort zone.”
As newspapers have encountered crushing budget pressures in recent years, and tens of thousands of reporting jobs have been lost, that trust between the purveyors and consumers of news is threatened, Hotz said. The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards help to provide some protection.
“When the AAAS Kavli awards highlight these really small papers,” Hotz said, “it helps to buttress the bedrock of our shared understanding of our world.”