AGU honors outstanding journalists

December 11, 2013

SAN FRANCISCO - At a ceremony today, a major international scientific society, the American Geophysical Union (AGU), will honor four journalists for excellence in their coverage of science that pertains to the Earth and solar system. AGU is the world's largest organization of Earth and space scientists.

Two filmmakers who have created documentaries and television series about Earth and space science for more than 30 years, and have done so mostly as a team--Geoffrey Haines-Stiles and Erna Akuginow--have jointly won AGU's 2013 Robert C. Cowen Award for Sustained Achievement in Science Journalism. For outstanding feature reporting in 2012 about the Earth and space sciences, AGU awards its 2013 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism - Features to freelance writer Tim Folger. And, receiving the 2013 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism - News is Paul Voosen, former staff writer for Greenwire and now at The Chronicle of Higher Education.

AGU's Cowen Award, given every two years, recognizes an individual journalist or group for "significant, lasting, and consistent contributions to accurate reporting or writing" on the Earth and space sciences for the general public.

Haines-Stiles and Akuginow most recently made such contributions with a three-part PBS series on climate science and sustainable energy sources, called "Earth: The Operators' Manual," which first aired in its entirety on Earth Day (April 22) last year. But, their accomplishments date back decades. When Carl Sagan was the face of science on television, Haines-Stiles served as one of three senior producers of Sagan's 1980 "Cosmos" series, and Akuginow worked in the early 1980s as an associate producer in developing another Sagan series about the nuclear arms race, intended as a sequel to "Cosmos." Between the time of those Sagan projects and the recent "Earth: The Operators' Manual" series, the duo collaborated on numerous exceptional films and television shows, including tales of space missions to Mars and Pluto and remarkable coverage of polar research, such as "Live from Antarctica," the first interactive broadcast from the South Pole. Embracing social media as a means of reaching larger audiences, Haines-Stiles and Akuginow have made the new PBS series the rallying point for an online community, including an active Twitter feed and a Facebook page with tens of thousands of 'likes.'

In recommending Haines-Stiles and Akuginow for the award, the selection committee reported that it "found the breadth and depth of their work inspiring." One committee member lauded their "international reach and wide range of contributions on diverse topics in Earth and planetary sciences." The nominator who recommended them for the award praised them for engaging with working scientists "to learn the latest advances and to figure out the most exciting and important things for the public to know," and for using "the best scholarship on communications to craft ways to share real science effectively." As media has changed, the nominator added, "they stayed ahead, adding Twitter and Facebook to TV broadcasts and live presentations."

Haines-Stiles and Akuginow have also had a positive impact on the communication of Earth and space science to broad audiences by means beyond their filmmaking, both their nominators and the selection committee noted. They organized numerous events at museums and other public venues at which scientists communicated with general audiences about fields such as polar research and Mars exploration, increasing public understanding of the science while also fostering confidence, skill, and camaraderie among researchers acting as ambassadors for their fields.

The Robert C. Cowen Award is named for a former science editor of The Christian Science Monitor, who was its first winner, and is embodied in a presentation piece consisting of a glass globe on a pedestal.

The Walter Sullivan Award honors outstanding reporting on the Earth and space sciences under a deadline of more than one week. Freelance writer Tim Folger is receiving the award for his article "The Calm Before the Wave," published in the National Geographic magazine, February 2012.

In his article, Folger recounts the story of tsunamis, especially the ones that struck Japan and Indonesia in the past decade, exploring the science of those hazards, their history, the destruction and terror they inflict, and efforts to improve survival odds for victims of future inundations. In interviews with a Japanese mayor who lost his town to the 2011 tsunami, geoscientists who study past and present tsunamis, and safety trainers who go to Indonesian schools trying to prepare for tsunamis-to-come, Folger brings to life the personal terror, the scientific puzzles and the enduring, seemingly insurmountable dangers to large populations around the world from these hazards.

The panel of award judges found Folger's article to be "a beautifully detailed piece ... which provides a compelling story about the nexus of science, society and policy." The article "has real staying power," they added, "with many evocative portrayals of those who survived, and of the communities struggling with managing risk from the catastrophic forces of nature."

"This is a wonderful example of science journalism by narrative," the selection committee declared in its letter recommending the article for the Sullivan award. "Folger does an excellent job of incorporating the latest in earthquake and tsunami science and linking it with the clear benefits to society in an engaging and pressing way. He has documented the errors and weaknesses in science, technology and communication that have contributed to past tsunami disasters, and describes how new discoveries are unearthing even more hazards lurking in unexpected places. In what, at first glance, can be seen as a fatalistic view of the inevitability of destruction, Folger takes us into the future, and shows us how scientists, governments, and NGOs are working to predict, prepare for, and mitigate the next big tsunami disaster."

A story by Paul Voosen -- "Glacial ghosts set sea-level trap for East Coast," which was published in GreenWire describes a wide variety of interwoven factors that affect sea-level rise on the East Coast of the United States. Award judges felt that this story tackled a difficult scientific topic and examined several important geophysical concepts that had not been widely reported.

The selection panel particularly liked Voosen's use of picturesque language to engage the reader and his use of metaphors to explain difficult-to-understand concepts. One committee member commented that, "The story gets the reader interested from the start. The opening sentence, 'The United States has a debt, etched in stone, to pay back to the sea,' promises a lot, and the article delivers." Another committee member said, "I really liked the amount of science in there ... the way Voosen described challenging topics like isostatic rebound. Also, the effect of Greenland 'losing its gravity.' That's not usually reported."

Although the article did not focus on "superstorm" Sandy, it was published not long after the storm's landfall on the U.S. East Coast, and thus provided useful and timely context for understanding the devastating coastal flooding from combined effects of the storm and sea-level rise. As a committee member said, "Overall, it was a very engrossing story that gave me a much more complete picture of sea-level rise than one normally gets."

The Sullivan and Perlman awards each consist of a plaque and a $5,000 stipend. AGU is presenting these journalism awards today at the Honors Tribute of the organization's annual Fall Meeting, which is currently taking place in San Francisco.

American Geophysical Union

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