Best newspaper award, science

By Grant Jacobs 22/11/2009

By a roundabout way–is there any other?–I was led to thinking that we ought to institute prizes for newspapers presenting science. I am emphasising newspapers: while there are some prizes for science writers, there seem to be few, if any for the newspapers. But I’m getting ahead of myself, let’s start at the beginning.

Peter recently praised some science writing.

That got me thinking about the local paper, the Otago Daily Times or ODT.

Regular (short) columns include ‘Chemistry Matters’ (on Saturday), ‘Museum Pieces’†, and ‘Ask a Scientist’. (I may be missing some as I don’t get the paper every day.)

Interestingly, these are all written by scientists. So scientists in this little corner of the world do write, which I guess fulfils my earlier protest,  at least locally.

Then there’s the features and other articles. There are a decent number of non-fiction book reviews, too, including some written by a (retired) science professor. Even the obits have a decent share of science-related memorials.

People from other cities might protest that we’re a university town and that it’s to be expected here. After the town does host the oldest university in the country, the ODT does have an ‘On campus’ section on their on-line paper, which includes local science news, and the university also host the country’s only Science Communication degree course. But surely larger circulation newspapers have the means to carry a competitive amount of science content?

This got me thinking that we need a prize for newspapers carrying science articles. One for the best. One for the shoddiest.

The best could be based on the number of regular columns devoted to science-related issues, features and accuracy. Anything else?

The worst should be given some suitably negative name and hurled at the paper with the most blatantly erroneous or misleading articles. Splat. Mud in their faces, or other brown smelly matter if your tastes extend to that. The wooden spoon award, basically, but we wouldn’t want to fall foul of the anti-smacking debate. I have a feeling that the Ben Goldacre’s of the world, would love to select this. (Count me in.)

Let the editors compete.

This is important. I want to see the editors compete. They’ll need a good supply of articles, but most of the focus raising the science writing publishing is on the writers, with very little on the editors. Let’s put the editors in the frame too.

(And the publishing houses, but let’s call it the editors for now, rightly or wrongly.)

In fact, lets see all the Science Media Centres around the world do this for their country, with the awards supported by their bloggers and the readers of their blogs.

Readers are welcome to suggest a name for a “Shonky Science” prize.

Note: I hope I have this column name right; I can’t find an example to confirm it. (My papers go out for recycling…)

PS: The reason I’m leaving technology out, is that I think it’s better covered already and in any event “geek” magasines of various shades are on the shelves by the dozen. The Qantus Media Awards recognise the best ‘Information & Communications Technology’ section in a newspaper, for example.

PPS: If anyone knows of any existing “best newspaper, science” awards in this part of the world (New Zealand), or for that matter anywhere else, let me know. It’s possible that these are “hidden” in the journalism awards; I didn’t see any on an admittedly sleepy search. On that note, I’m off for the night…

PPPS: Other science journalism posts in Code for life:

Note to science communicators–alleles, not “disease genes”

Three kinds of knowledge about science journalism

Science journalism–critical analysis not debate

Sidebar scientists

Scientists can’t write?

Book review: Victorian Popularizers of Science

0 Responses to “Best newspaper award, science”

  • It’s great to see that there is good science writing being published around the country. My question is what do we do about the poor scientific content of some media? Last week I came across a column in the Your Weekend supplement to the Christchurch Press (Nov 14) that claimed that the greenhouse effect was an inappropriate analogy for describing global warming, as greenhouses worked by convection. I wrote a very polite letter to the writer pointing out that greenhouses gain their heat by trapping radiation so it is an appropriate and useful analogy. However I have had no response.
    It concerns me because readers might use this to reinforce the impression that scientists don’t know what they are talking about .
    What is perhaps even more concerning is the writer of this column seems to regularly use disparaging remarks about science and scientists. Given that the content is often science based I find this extremely concerning. Although I notice this week the general tone of the column has improved, though a physicist might want to check it out as it is on the Mpemba effect.

  • I’ve just finished reading “Don’t be such a scientist – talking substance in an age of style” by Randy Olson. It is a fascinating, if slightly depressing read. It proposes that if scientists want to communicate with the public we have to present in engaging ways. While we often think that all we need to do is get accurate logical science across to the public, Olson contents that we must also focus on style – presentations need to arouse interest, tell a story and even, dare I say it, entertain.
    Although I disagreed initially with some of Olson’s ideas, I think it is an enlightening read and would highly recommend it.

    One of the things that I think prevents some scientists from engaging in science communication is that the publish or perish imperative can leave very little time to consider wider communication of science to the public. Ironically, I have only become involved in science communication over the past year, because I have moved into a largely management position. This now means my spare time is not spent reading the literature around my specialist area, but reading more generally on science and science education. Although I miss labwork, I find myself more enthused about science than ever. The only worry I have is that some scientists will probably consider that I have less credibility now being in management as opposed to the lab.

  • My question is what do we do about the poor scientific content of some media?

    That’s partly why I included a shoddy science award 😉 Shame them into looking at what they’re doing. (Essentially this is what Ben Goldacre does, for a living too!)

    Although I disagreed initially with some of Olson’s ideas, I think it is an enlightening read and would highly recommend it

    I haven’t read it but the messages, as indicated in other’s detailed reviews, seem very familiar to me (partly why I haven’t really looked it up in the library). I think you get the same/similar message if you read around. I suppose you get the messages in one place, with less effort, which is of course part of the value of books like that. Personally, there are other books I look to; might post on these sometime.

    Should add, some reviews of that book have been a bit negative, not everyone seems to think it’s the best effort.

    The only worry I have is that some scientists will probably consider that I have less credibility now being in management as opposed to the lab.

    If any of us don’t actively follow (a particular area of) the primary literature we “lose” the subtleties over time and eventually can’t follow (that area of) the primary literature in it at all unless we put a major effort to update ourselves via reviews, etc. I’ve seen it from a number of people that have moved on to other things, and most are happy to just say that they don’t follow it any more. This applies to retired scientists, too, I suspect.

    For example, I tend not to follow bacterial genetics much, as as the proteins I’m interested in only occur in the “higher” animals (whereas some I used to be interested in were found in bacteria as well as eukaryotes).

    You’ll keep the overall approach and background, of course, so you should be better than the typical journo 😉

  • Hi Grant. The Science Media Centre was planning on offering a science journalism prize, but we held off to see the outcome of the Prime Minister’s Science Prizes, which at one point looked as though they may include a science media prize (ie for journalists). While there is a science media communication prize, it seems skewed more towards scientists and is worth a hefty $150,000. So its a good opportunity to look at doing something to acknowledge the best science writing each year as Qantas doesn’t serve science or tech reporting well. The Skeptics Society does he Bent Spoon award every year and that covers shonky science journalism well, they also do an award for the best science journalism. We are thinking over scenarios for what ew could add – maybe as you suggest, an SMC journalism prize common to all the SMCs would be a great profile-boosting thing for the winning journalists.

  • Hi Peter,

    Actually I didn’t suggest a science journalism prize at all! 🙂

    I suggested prizes for the newspapers. I wasn’t suggesting something common to all the SMC’s either, but that each SMC should “do” their own country separately. (Some countries, like the UK, seem to already have fairly well-established awards and may not see the need to duplicate them.)

    I agree about raising the profile of writers, etc., but a point I made was that there seem to be few awards for the newspapers, i.e. awards that might play to the editors better. They are the people who decide what ends up in the paper, after all. My thinking partly was that unless the winner were a staff writer, a science writer’s award might not really encourage editors to place more science writing in the paper, but an award to the newspaper might. (Thoughts, anyone?)

    For what it’s worth I did a quick search for science writing awards while writing this and while there’s not that many, I was a bit surprised how many there were. My first impression from that is not there is (internationally) a near absence of science writing awards, but that their profile is low. There is a probably a shortage locally, though.

    As you were saying, a science journalism prize wouldn’t go amiss. Locally it does seem to be partly covered by the Qantus Awards if their lists of prizes are anything to go by. They have a ‘Science and Technology’ prize as I noted in the postScript, another for Health/Medicine and think there is one for Agriculture reporting too. (But then I have dodgy memory…) The first seems to occasionally not be awarded. (Sponsorship issues?)

    I’m not that surprised that the PM’s Science Prizes are targeted at scientists, it’s the overall theme of their awards.

    Thanks for pointing out the Skeptics Society’s awards.

  • I guess a newspaper rather than a journalist prize makes it a bit like the prizes for best drama, best documentary, etc., awarded to TV Channels. They get seen as a tick for the channel, rather than just the producers (who may be named).

    I can’t think of anything like that. It needs a sponsor to put up the money, I guess.

    I think it would be a great idea. I’m a bit disappointed in the Manhire prize which has two classes – fiction and non-fictipn science writing. But I think the judges are more biased towards creative writing than towards science or even popular science/journalism.

  • If you dig a bit deeper into the Qantas award results for 2009 ( you’ll see that while categories exist for environment and conservation and technology and science news reporting, no awards were given. That’s a disappointing outcome and suggests individual reporters need to be both encouraged to write science-related stories and enter them in the awards.

    There isn’t really any other awards in New Zealand to reward individual writers for covering science issues except the Skeptics awards – Statistics NZ does one to encourage good use of statistics and there are lucrative agricultural journalism awards but nothing aimed at science reporting. I think that’s the gap – an award with some money attached to it and perhaps an opportunity to spend time pursuing an area of interest visiting a CRI, CoRE or university would be very attractive to those committed to the round.

    I think by rewarding the best story of the year, the publication or network gets a lot of prestige. Otherwise doing it by organisation, you might have a paper that has the science scoop of the year miss out to one that has a regular science section and actually devotes more coverage to science but isn’t breaking stories in the public interest.

  • IPENZ also has an engineering journalism award worth a hefty $5000. The Herald’s former science reporter Simon Collins won it last year. This year’s winner will be announced this week at the IPENZ awards dinner here in Wellington

  • Hi Peter,

    I think you’re focusing on a different thing than me. I’ve written a new post to explain my focus as it’s a bit long-winded for here! (I’m not as long-winded as Orac, though…)

    I’m all for a science writer’s award, but when I look at the near complete focus on writers in these discussions about how to improve the standing of science writing, without any mention of the editors or the publications, I can’t but help think something is missing.

    About money, sponorship, etc. I didn’t write about money, as I didn’t (and don’t) think any is needed for an award for newspapers; I can’t imagine it would make any real difference to them. For them wouldn’t the award itself “matter” and that who awards it has credibility and standing? Hence my wanting for it to come from the SMCs, incidentally. (For writers, money as part of the award helps, of course!)