Sharon Begley, a seasoned medical reporter who is senior science writer at STAT, is the recipient of the 2017 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.
Judges cited Begley for the remarkable authority, authenticity, precision and confidence of her writing and praised the exhaustive investigative work evident in each piece of reporting. Her articles are distinguished by “a propulsive force, an accuracy and a sharpness” that are the hallmarks of a knowledgeable reporter and polished writer, they said.
Begley joined STAT, the life sciences publication of the Boston Globe, in 2015 following stints as health and science correspondent for Reuters, science editor and columnist at Newsweek magazine, and science columnist at The Wall Street Journal. In a letter nominating Begley for the Cohn Prize, Managing Editor Gideon Gil recalled that she was the first science writer hired when STAT was launched. “One person after another told us she was the best medical science reporter around. Hiring her would bring our startup instant credibility. She has.”
Begley is the 20th recipient of the prize, awarded by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years.
In selecting Begley, the judges drew attention to “Behind a Cancer-Treatment Firm’s Rosy Survival Claims,” a 2013 Reuters special investigative report on the Cancer Treatment Centers of America for which Begley did the bulk of the reporting and the writing. Seasoned with interviews and gripping stories, the article presented a thorough examination of the data behind the center’s remarkable success claims, presenting ample evidence that CTCA cherry-picks its patients and reports results selectively.
Another notable piece was Begley’s November 2016 report for STAT on gene drives, “Gene Drive Gives Scientists Power to Hijack Evolution.” That story, the judges said, provided an extraordinarily clear, thorough and dramatic explanation of the science and societal issues associated with gene drives, a genetic technology that forces introduced genes to spread through a population. Gene drives have been proposed as a way to stop the spread of disease by insects such as mosquitoes.
Begley’s nomination also included her report on the potential of personalized cancer vaccines using “neoantigens,” a story showing how a lack of resources may be holding back work on a cure for sickle cell disease, and an investigation into Myriad Genetics’ attempts to discredit rival labs’ tests for breast cancer genes.
In the nomination letter, Gil praised Begley’s “remarkable range and versatility,” noting that she “breaks news, explains cutting edge advances, investigates corporate and government malfeasance, profiles scientists, and busts myths,” writing expertly about basic science one day and workplace wellness the next. Begley’s regular column, Gut Check, systematically reviews the science behind popular claims and punctures hyped studies.
“What really sets Sharon apart from most other science writers,” Gil wrote, “is that she combines probing, original reporting with a crime reporter’s metabolism... she craves the adrenaline rush of daily journalism and getting scoops.” And the stories that she breaks are skillfully told, packed “with context, insight and prose that captivates readers.
Begley will receive a $3,000 award and certificate and be honored in San Francisco on Oct. 26, the opening day of the 10th World Conference of Science Journalists, which this year replaces the annual ScienceWriters meeting jointly organized by CASW and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). CASW, a not-for-profit organization of journalists and scientists committed to improving the quality of science news and information reaching the public, is organizing WCSJ2017 with NASW and the World Federation of Science Journalists.
The Victor Cohn Prize is one of many honors earned by Sharon Begley (@sxbegle) since she joined Newsweek upon her graduation from Yale University. In 25 years at Newsweek she served as science columnist and editor and as a contributing writer at the magazine and its website, The Daily Beast (2011). From 2002 to 2007, she was a science columnist at The Wall Street Journal, and from 2012 to 2015 she was the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters (2012–15). She is co-author (with Richard J. Davidson) of the 2012 book The Emotional Life of Your Brain, author of the 2007 book Train Your Mind, Change Your Brain, and co-author (with Jeffrey Schwartz) of the 2002 book The Mind and the Brain. She has been honored with an honorary degree from the University of North Carolina at Asheville for communicating science to the public and the Public Understanding of Science Award from the San Francisco Exploratorium. She has spoken before many audiences on the topics of science writing, neuroplasticity, and science literacy.
THE VICTOR COHN PRIZE
This year’s Cohn Prize entries were judged by Ben Patrusky, CASW’s executive director emeritus; Barbara J. Culliton, an investigative reporter, instructor and consultant who served as news editor of Science and deputy editor of Nature; and Richard Harris, National Public Radio science correspondent and CASW treasurer.
The inaugural Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting in 2000 was shared by Laurie Garrett of Newsday and Lawrence K. Altman of The New York Times. Subsequent recipients were Jon Palfreman, a public television documentarian; Daniel Q. Haney, medical editor for the Associated Press; Shannon Brownlee, a noted magazine writer and book author; Michelle Trudeau of National Public Radio; Rick Weiss of the Washington Post; Jerome Groopman of The New Yorker; Geeta Anand of The Wall Street Journal; Joe Palca of NPR; Denise Grady of The New York Times; Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press; Ron Winslow of the Wall Street Journal; Jon Cohen of Science magazine; John Fauber of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; freelance health reporter and former NPR correspondent Joanne Silberner; Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times; Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; and Liz Szabo, health writer for USA Today and senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News.
The award honors the late Washington Post medical writer and health columnist Victor Cohn, known as the dean of medical science reporting. He distinguished himself by the clarity and effectiveness of his reporting during a 50-year career that began with outstanding coverage of early “wonder” drugs and the polio vaccine, as well as the dawn of the modern space age. Late in his career, Cohn started a Post column called “The Patient’s Advocate,” and wrote a highly regarded professional book, News & Numbers: A Guide to Reporting Statistical Claims and Controversies in Health and Other Fields. Cohn, who died of cancer in 2000, was a co-founder in 1959 of CASW.
To read Sharon Begley’s work, visit her website.