World Federation of Science Journalists

Science Journalism awards become multimedia


November 24, 2008

The U.S. National Association of Science Writers (NASW) has made its annual Science in Society awards multimedia. Print and electronic productions will be competing in the same categories.

The changes come as journalism in general adapts to an avalanche of new media. Reporters today are less and less tied to one medium, with newspaper work moving onto the paper’s website, with broadcasting reporters covering both radio and television, with more space in the blogosphere and elsewhere for informed opinion and commentary.

The category changes also reflect an awareness of the disparity between big media with big resources and local media outlets with far less money and time to spend pursuing science stories. So, one of the new categories is “local science reporting,” setting it apart form “science reporting” in general.

Previously the categories were books, periodicals (including newspapers and magazines), and electronic (including radio, TV and the Web).
The 2008 awards reflected the weight of big media. One was for Liza Mundy’s book Everything Conceivable: How Assisted Reproduction Is Changing Men and Women and the World, published by Knopf. Another went to Beth Whitehouse for her Newsday series The Match, and a NOVA television production by Stephen Lyons and Llewellyn M. Smith won for a docudrama called Forgotten Genius, which appeared on PBS’s NOVA television series.
As longtime awards committee member Bob Finn noted in an announcement to the NASW membership, journalism in general is “becoming ever more platform independent. One year, for example, a team from the New York Times entered a series of articles in the periodicals category and the companion television show and website in the electronic category.

“In my view the print articles, the television show, and the website were all part of a single work, but there was no way for the writers to enter it as such.”

NASW settled on a new scheme with four awards: books, commentary and opinion, science reporting, and local science reporting.

Except for the book category, Finn says, the awards will be “platform independent.” At the same time, the awards committee got to “commentary and opinion” partly in light of the growth and importance of the blogosphere, but also because print editorials as well as blogs could qualify as “investigative or interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact for good and bad,” the main awards criterion.

Preliminary reaction from NASW members has been positive. At the Discovery Channel, writer/blogger/producer Larry O’Hanlon said, “I’ve been arguing for some similar changes for at least 15 years, ever since I began my science writing career as a small town newspaper reporter and had no chance against regional papers with more resources.”

Doug Levy, former science/medical reporter for USA Today with stints at National Public Radio, said “It would be wonderful if the local category actually spurs more local science reporting.” Levy is now director of communications at the University of California (San Francisco) School of Medicine.

William Hammack wrote, “As a former Science-in-Society Award winner I think the proposed changes are right on track … there has been a explosion in video and audio being producing beyond the standard broadcast model of NPR, PBS, Discovery and so on and these changes help to recognize that growing trend. So, good show!”

Hammack is now professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the University of Illinois and has a long history in radio. Recently he did a four-part series on the water supply in the Urbana-Champaign area and is working on a alternative energy series for his local public radio station.

Finn pointed to the trend of newspapers “going multimedia. This is routine in the NY Times, for example, but even many small papers are adding depth to their coverage by putting additional data, including video, on a website and having reporters engage readers directly in blogs.”


Freelancer sees the contrast with big Media

Here’s a Canadian story which illustrates the big media versus small media challenge the NASW was facing as it updated its awards categories.

In November 2007, Mariève Paradis was not in her current job as a contract researcher for Radio-Canada in Montreal. She was in Guiyu, in the south of China, with her Chinese-language teacher as a translator, trying to stay out of trouble in the most poisonous electronic waste recyling operation on the planet.

Electronic salvage in Guiyu is open-air, uncontrolled and dangerous
In November 2008, CBS Sixty Minutes ran a Guiyu segment which showed Scott Pelly and his crew being strong-armed out of town as they attempted to do the same story.

Paradis’ story was in French, CBS didn’t know about it, and didn’t interview her. Back in Montreal, she tried and failed to sell her whole story to Quebec media, settling instead for selling off chunks of it for not much money..

The Quebec freelancer ran into a gentler but still scary version of what CBS met. “People were following me in a big Audi. Nobody would talk with me if I used my recorder. My e-mails were blocked or read by someone before I got them, probably because I contacted Greenpeace China.”

She also determined that the Guiyu recycling company sold recovered materials to international electronics firms which have set up shop on the east coast of China.

“It’s just like the food cycle. The junked computers and cellphones come to Guiyu, the valuable materials are extracted and sold to the companies where they originated, and are put into computers to be sold again.”

Despite all this, “It was really hard to sell the story. I won [the judge’s commendation at the Fernand-Seguin awards for Quebec’s Association of Science Communicators], but I didn’t sell it.”

This worker is in the recyling business after quitting his work as a fisherman because all the fish died from pollution. We hid the worker's face on the even remote chance he could face trouble from local authorities.