Earth Day Recollections: Notable Environmental Reporting by AAAS Kavli Winners

Emily Hughes

The AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards program has a long history of honoring groundbreaking environmental reporting. From melting ice caps to the future of the Great Lakes, winners have brought their outstanding reporting to important topics of their time. This year, we celebrate Earth Day by looking back at some of these stories.

The awards were established in 1945 to encourage good science journalism at a time when very few news outlets had full-time science writers. Early awardees reported on advances in Atomic Age technology and later shared important news about space travel and astronomy. But reporting on environmental and earth science has been a consistent and fundamental part of the awards since the beginning. Both established reporters at national news outlets and young reporters just starting their careers at small newspapers have found important stories to tell about the state of the environment.

Winning environmental stories from the program’s early years tended to focus on observing scientific phenomena in the natural world. A 1947 story from husband-and-wife team Lorus and Margery Milne won for explaining the fascinating ways water’s chemical properties allow different organisms to survive.

Rachel Carson conducting research in the Atlantic Ocean with Bob Hines | U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

Rachel Carson, who rose to fame years later for her “Silent Spring” reporting on the environmental impact of insecticide DDT, won a Magazine Award in 1950 for “Birth of an Island” – a riveting account of oceanic island formation and resulting biodiversity that would become a chapter in “The Sea Around Us,” her National Book Award-winner.

Winning entries began to grapple with potential threats to the environment on a global scale. Elizabeth Maggio won in 1975 for three stories that included an early look at how aerosols threaten the ozone layer. Elizabeth Kolbert’s 2005 Magazine Award-winning New Yorker piece “The Climate of Man” told how the earth is changing and will continue to change as rising temperatures lead to higher sea levels, thawing permafrost and melting polar ice.

Other winners, like three-time award winner Daniel Grossman, tailored their stories for online and audio formats. Grossman’s climate science reporting has taken him all over the world. “I’ve gotten sea sick in the Arctic and the Antarctic Ocean,” he wrote in a 2018 story for the AAAS Kavli website. “I’ve yanked leeches off my ankles in Madagascar. I’ve waited out a stomach bug in a hotel in Peru.”

Recent winners have developed stories from a deep immersion in data sources as well as traditional on-scene reporting. In 2020, seven reporters from The Washington Post won for their "2°C: Beyond the Limit” series. 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. Their series presented this data in a comprehensible and publicly accessible way, driving home the importance of the 2-degree Celsius metric.

“Boomtown, Flood Town" foreshadowed the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston area | AMFPhotography 

Kiah Collier, Al Shaw and Neena Satija won a 2017 award for “Boomtown, Flood Town,” a multimedia online story published jointly by ProPublica and The Texas Tribune. The Dec. 7, 2016 story used a series of data-driven maps to show predictions of more frequent and fiercer rainstorms in cities like Houston due to climate change. Their reporting told how the loss of undeveloped prairie and wetlands has made areas more prone to flooding and foreshadowed the devastating impact of Hurricane Harvey on the Houston area in August 2017.

Yet even as larger data-driven projects find new ways to illustrate environmental topics, local reporting remains foundational and has often drawn the attention of the judging panels. Three-time award-winner Robert Lee Hotz, recently retired from the Wall Street Journal, won his first award in 1977 for a series in The News Virginian, a country daily based in Waynesboro, Virginia. His series investigated the cumulative pollution of a popular local fishing and recreational river. The award kicked off Hotz’s journalism career, and he went on to win two more times in the Large Newspaper category.

Post and Courier reporter Tony Bartelme has won in the Small Newspaper category twice for his environmental reporting, including a 2021 story on an endangered bird species local to Charleston, South Carolina where the newspaper is based. In 2018, Bartelme won in the Small Newspaper category for his reporting on the impact of destructive algae blooms.

On occasion, local reporting can capture the interest of a larger audience, as it did with Lynda Mapes and her Seattle Times team with their “Hostile Waters” series. The team explored the plight of the southern resident killer whales in Washington’s Puget sound, while also tackling larger issues like sound pollution and habitat loss. While reporting their story, a mother orca they were following lost her calf, and carried the dead newborn on a 1,000-mile grieving journey that lasted 17 days. 

The Seattle Times team explored the plight of the southern resident orcas in Washington’s Puget sound | Mike Charest

Six million people were following the story by the end of the mother orca’s journey, said Mapes in a 2020 video interview. The sudden attention fueled an editorial decision to escalate reporting on the subject. “In the newsroom we made a decision to elevate the project,” said Mapes, “to make it bigger and keep covering the breaking news because these whales were in crisis even as we reported the larger story.”

Llewellyn Smith and Kelly Thomson, who won in 2017 for their WGBH/NOVA documentary “Poisoned Waters,” brought wider attention to what started as a local story by closely investigating the science behind the Flint, Michigan water crisis. They detailed the disastrous results that occurred when officials allowed lead from old water pipes to leach into the city’s drinking water.

While the crisis has still not concluded, “Poisoned Waters” paid close attention to not only the science but also the impact of the crisis on Flint residents. “I think one of the advantages to doing a film like this is that people want to have their stories told,” said Smith in a 2018 video interview. “And one of the things that was effective for us was to know that we were coming back again and again and again.” Their intimacy with the issue allowed them to gain more trust from their sources, and to share a more accurate and detailed illustration of the issue.

Sustained local reporting also was at the heart of 2013 Large Newspaper Award-winner Dan Egan’s three-part Milwaukee Journal Sentinel series about invasive species in the Great Lakes. He later built on this reporting in his book, "The Death and Life of the Great Lakes,” which was nominated for a Pulitzer Prize. “This book never would have come about without all that I learned during a decade's worth of reporting for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel,” Egan said in a 2018 interview.

Since the awards program began accepting international entries in 2015, it has honored environmental reporting from around the globe. In 2019, France24 team Mairead Dundas and Marina Bertsch won for a spot news video investigating failing soil quality and local efforts to restore it through conservation agriculture. In 2021, Aathira Perinchery – the program’s first winner from India – won for a story about biodiversity in India’s Western Ghats.

Rice paddies have been abandoned in Ozi Island, due to increasing salinity | Geoffrey Kamadi 

Geoffrey Kamadi, the program’s first winner from Kenya, won in 2020 for his Science Africa story “Tana River Basin Under Threat.” Despite the area’s physical beauty, Kamadi writes, a series of dams along the 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.

“The Tana River Basin issue has been around for quite some time,” said Kamadi in a 2021 interview. “But I wanted to bring out the story, meeting the people who have been affected: the farmers, the livestock keepers.” He advised early career journalists to speak with local sources. “Always talk to the people in communities [affected]. That’s where the real story is.”



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