Science’s Path to the Pulitzers

Explanatory category is a longtime entrée to the prestigious award

Some people can’t wait to check online for the latest sports scores or the state of the slipping stock market. But New York Times journalist Amy Harmon has a different habit: checking her online account at 23andMe for updates on her DNA profile. The freshly-minted Pulitzer Prize-winner has been tracking her own health risks and the implications of genetic testing as part of a series profiling the anguish faced by Americans who discover they carry genes raising the risks for devastating diseases like Huntington’s or breast cancer (or their great relief if they don’t).

On Monday, Harmon, 39, won the 2008 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting, the latest in a string of wins for writers on science, health, the environment, and technology. Science-related topics have captured at least fourteen of the twenty-four awards since the category, and its predecessor, the Prize for Explanatory Journalism, was created in 1985.

Explanatory reporting is a great niche for tackling how the products of science affect society and everyday folks in a very real way, stories that are always a great read if done right. The Pulitzer jury called Harmon’s lengthy, and ongoing, series on “The DNA Age” a “striking examination of the dilemmas and ethical issues” created by genetic testing that can sometimes raise more questions than answers, as well as threats to privacy and health insurance.

Harmon, reached by phone, said that her assignment was “the social impact of genetic testing as opposed to the research itself. The idea was to look at the human angle, how it filters out of the laboratory and into people’s lives.”

Since 2006, Harmon has chronicled the myriad ways that DNA testing can have an impact: a 33-year-old Chicago medical resident who confirms she carries the high-risk gene for breast cancer and weighs whether to undergo a preventive double mastectomy (she does); a young woman living with the devastating knowledge that she will develop the incurable brain disorder known as Huntington’s disease after testing positive for the rare gene that causes it; families networking online about their children with an unusual genetic mutation that causes severe developmental delays. Harmon also follows delicate issues of DNA, ancestry and race; insurance fears that lead many to forego DNA testing; and the surreptitious use of DNA testing by law enforcement officials.

“The impact of these kinds of stories is different than what we traditionally think of as the most important journalism stories”-exposing corrupt politicians, covering a war, passing laws, said Harmon. “The DNA revolution involves a lot of complex science and research. It is happening in the most personal areas of people’s lives.”

In official Pulitzer lingo, the best explanatory reporting “illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.” Science-related topics have turned out to be a natural fit, dominating the the category, followed by business/finance/corruption (five awards), airline safety (two awards, which could ostensibly be construed as science and technology), and one each for global terrorism, foreign policy, and poverty. In addition to Harmon, two other finalists for the 2008 explanatory prize were cited for environment and technology writing: The Boston Globe’s Beth Daley for “her evocative exploration of how global warming affects New Englanders, from ice fishermen to blueberry farmers,” and the staff of the Oregonian in Portland for “its richly illustrated reports on a breakthrough in producing the microprocessors that are a technological cornerstone of modern life.”

Last year’s explanatory prize went to environmental reporters from the Los Angeles Times for their “richly portrayed reports on the world’s distressed oceans,” a series that grabbed just about every award in science journalism before capturing the coveted Pulitzer. Previous winners have tackled genetic research (The Human Genome Diversity Project and gene therapy), the human brain from neuroscience to psychiatry, ethical issues like stem cell research and death with dignity, common medical conditions like aneurysms and alcohol abuse, deadly infectious disease outbreaks in Africa, antibiotic resistance, and flawed space technology from “Star Wars” to the Hubble Space Telescope.

Of course, science, health and environmental reporting has also been honored sporadically in other categories as well, particularly investigative reporting, public service, and national reporting. The New York Times’ John Noble Wilford won in 1984 in the national reporting category for his science coverage. Several prominent science and medical reporters, including Natalie Angier, Deborah Blum, and Diana Sugg, had also won prizes for beat reporting until the category was dropped two years ago.

While Harmon concentrates on science and health, she is not part of the Times’ highly respected group of more than twenty science, health and environment beat reporters and editors. Instead, she’s part of a small team of national reporters chronicling “How We Live” by focusing on contemporary issues across society. She previously covered technology and the Internet, and said her interest in genetic testing is in part due to a family history of breast cancer.

As a journalist, Harmon wanted to experience firsthand how it felt to know about her own genetic predispositions. So she submitted a saliva sample to a California biotech start-up company called 23andMe (the name comes from the twenty-three pairs of human chromosomes), which offers DNA testing and risk analysis for around $1,000. Harmon learned that her risk of breast cancer and Alzheimer’s was about average (as far as today’s limited information can tell), but she was surprised to find signs that her heart disease risk may be higher than normal.

Harmon was in the Times’ third-floor newsroom when the staff gathered late Monday afternoon for the highly anticipated Pulitzers announcement. Her elation, and enormous smile, is captured in a photo on the paper’s Web site. She is standing beside a towering Walt Bogdanich, the paper’s intrepid, 57-year-old investigative reporter who shared this year’s Pulitzer for Investigative Reporting-his third-for another health-related series, “A Toxic Pipeline.” Bogdanich and colleague Jake Hooker exposed hazardous ingredients in cough medicine, toothpaste and other consumer products imported from China.

The 2008 Pulitzers tapped two other health-related series. One prize went to the Chicago Tribune, which also won in the investigative category, for exposing poor regulation of lead-laced toys and other children’s products. The other went to The Washington Post for its remarkable series on the mistreatment of wounded veterans at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which earned the public service award.

The common denominator in all this Pulitzer-winning work, past and present, is bringing complex scientific stories to life in a way that had meaning for the reader, and being given adequate time and space to do so. Alas, those two things are in very short supply these days. Thankfully, Harmon’s genetics articles were generally given prominent display on the Times front page and jumped inside, often to a full one or two-page spread. Online, they were packaged with great graphics, videos of the people profiled, and commentary from the author.

In an era when newspapers struggle mightily for readers and revenues, these prestigious awards for serious health and science journalism carry more meaning than ever, especially for veteran science writers like Jon Franklin who worry about the survival of such journalism in the nation’s newsrooms. He won the first explanatory Pulitzer award in 1985 for his seven-part Baltimore Evening Sun series on molecular psychiatrists. Now a 66-year-old journalism professor at the University of Maryland, he sees a shift toward shallow celebrity-centered journalism, with little time and space for newspaper reporters to do more than log the news. “The number of staff science writers is diminishing so fast, and today most science writing is really rewriting press releases,” says Franklin.

So editors take note. If you want to take home one of journalism’s top honors, order your reporters out the newsroom and let them roam free in the wide-ranging terrain of science, health and the environment. They may bring back stories that people really care about.

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Cristine Russell is a CJR contributing editor and the immediate past-president of the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing and a senior fellow at Harvard's Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. She is a former Shorenstein Center fellow and Washington Post reporter.