Celebrating Science Journalism in Memphis

Nov 3, 2022 | Michelson Medical Research Foundation, Michelson Philanthropies, News

Michelson Philanthropies attended the Science Writers conference in Memphis, Tennessee, and honored two journalists for winning a prestigious medical science reporting award.

Science Conference 2022 Honorees

By Justin Chapman

Michelson Philanthropies celebrated science journalism in Memphis, Tennessee, in October at Science Writers 2022, the annual conference of the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). Experts discussed the origin of Covid-19, the latest data on the opioid epidemic, the newest science on gun violence, the diversity or lack thereof in scientific fields, and more under-examined facets of medical research.

Michelson Philanthropies also hosted a reception during the conference to honor journalists Pam Belluck of The New York Times and Stephanie Lee, formerly of Buzzfeed and currently of the Chronicle of Higher Education, for jointly winning the 2022 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. According to the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), the judges noted that “both journalists have excelled at digging up and reporting important stories that others have missed or dismissed. Their writing, humane and full of compelling detail, has given their stories both accessibility and high impact.”

Pam Belluck (NY Times) and Stephanie Lee (formerly of Buzzfeed)

Journalists, Pam Belluck (NY Times) and Stephanie Lee (formerly of Buzzfeed)

Cohn led a distinguished, award-winning career as the science and medical reporter for the Minneapolis Tribune and then the science editor, science and medical reporter, and health columnist for the Washington Post.

According to CASW, which he co-founded in 1959, he was “at the forefront of coverage of virtually every major advance in medicine over the last five decades, from the triumph of the Salk polio vaccine and the first human experiments with cancer chemotherapy to the eradication of smallpox and the manipulation of human genes.”

The prize judges said Belluck told “clear, concise, engaging, unflinching stories with kindness and sensitivity,” and Lee conducts “ambitious, responsible, high-impact investigative journalism with keen insight into the culture of health and science.” Both have “excelled at digging up and reporting important stories that others have missed or dismissed. Their writing, humane and full of compelling detail, has given their stories both accessibility and high impact.”

At the reception hosted by Michelson Philanthropies, Executive Director Geoffrey Baum said the night belonged to Belluck and Lee for their amazing work.

“I firmly believe, if you want to have the most social impact, you should invest in quality journalism that informs and engages the public and resonates with policy makers who can make the needed change,” he said. “We also have to keep scientists accountable, without diminishing our support for science. We’re delighted to have this partnership with the National Association of Science Writers and the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to continue to uplift and celebrate great journalism.”

Belluck recognized previous Cohn prize winners and highlighted her sources.

“I can’t say enough about the courage and the risks that my sources take to confide their experiences in me,” she said. “I do a lot of stories that look at very painful human experiences. People really put themselves out there and I’m grateful to everyone who has trusted me to tell their stories. I don’t want those folks to get lost here; I want them to be front and center.”

“Science writers are just as important as those who make new discoveries, which are only of value if the information gets out to the public.”

Dr. James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital

She added that the mission of science journalists is to bring change by shining a light on problems and pointing the way to solutions, while holding powerful people to account.

“It’s a privilege to be able to try to contribute a small amount toward that goal,” she said. “It’s an honor to have this work recognized, especially in the name of Victor Cohn who was so incredibly accomplished in his career.”

Lee said the stories she’s most drawn to are “complicated and messy.”

“Often when I start doing a story I’m not really sure if it’s going to turn into something,” she said. “It seems like there’s something there to be found but I’m not sure what it might be. Journalism is kind of a leap of faith in that sense. You need a good team behind you to help you look under every rock and report it out until you find something. Thank you so much again to everyone for your support. This means the world to me and I’m so honored.”

Other awards were also presented during the conference, including the Evert Clark/Seth Payne award for outstanding science reporting, the Science in Society awards, the Excellence in Institutional Writing Award, and the Sharon Begley Award for Science Reporting.

The conference covered a wide range of scientific topics. Before the opening session, Dr. James Downing, president and CEO of St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital, which sponsored the conference, talked about the hospital’s recent work.

Memphis Science Writers Conference 2022

Downing highlighted noteworthy statistics, like how 80 percent of U.S. children with cancer are cured, but one in five U.S. kids with cancer will succumb to the disease. Globally, that number is four in five children. About 400,000 kids are diagnosed with cancer annually around the world, highlighting the urgent need for a hospital such as St. Jude’s.

He said no family is billed for treatment, lodging, transportation, or food when receiving care at St. Jude’s, which treats 6,500 patients every year. St. Jude’s is a research hospital, so they learn from each patient and then disseminate that knowledge via science writers.

If scientists don’t have good relationships with science writers, Downing argued, bad policy decisions will be made.

“Science writers are just as important as those who make new discoveries, which are only of value if the information gets out to the public,” he said.