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Tuesday, November 10, 2009

2009 AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards

The American Association for the Advancement of Science has just announced the Kavli Science Journalism Awards for 2009. It's a very interesting group of winners. Among them is Carl Zimmer, who won in the category "Large Newspaper—Circulation of 100,000 or more."

Awards are nice, but the problem with science journalism awards is that they are decided by a panel of science journalists. What this means is that the awards are for good journalism and not necessarily for good science. As most Sandwalk readers know, I'm not happy with the way science is presented to the general public and my main complaint about science writers is that they don't do a very good job of getting the science right. (Many scientists aren't much better, but that's a different issue.)

If we are going to award good science journalism, don't you think that one of the main criteria should be whether the reporting is scientifically accurate? If you accept that premise, then the next question is who should make that call.

Take Carl Zimmer's articles for example. One of them was Now: The Rest of the Genome published in The New York Times in November 2008. This is an article about genes and genomes and the main point is that our concept of a gene is in trouble in light of recent discoveries in genomics.

Carl's article is better than most but it still misrepresents the modern status of a gene and the importance of phenomena like alternative splicing and epigenetics [Genes and Straw Men]. There's no doubt in my mind that Carl is the best of the science writers who could have written about this subject but I'm still troubled by the fact that the prize committee was probably incapable of evaluating the accuracy of the science in his article.

The award is sponsored by AAAS. What would be wrong with having a few scientists as judges?

From the press release ...
"The AAAS awards have long recognized the importance of high-quality science journalism across the board," said Cristine Russell, president of the nonprofit Council for the Advancement of Science Writing. "The Kavli Foundation’s decision to endow the awards is particularly important at a time when accurate, insightful writing about science is threatened by rapid changes in the media marketplace. The future of this program is now assured as a new generation of journalists tackles important science developments and their impact on society.
I don't know Cristine Russel but she's promoting these awards as examples of "accurate, insightful writing about science." I'd love to know who determines whether the reporting is accurate. How does she know they were scientifically accurate?

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