Helen Branswell and Amy Maxmen share 2021 Victor Cohn Prize

Helen Branswell (left) and Amy Maxmen, winners of the 2021 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting

CASW honors a pair of senior journalists whose parallel and complementary reporting has helped the public weather a dangerous and fast-moving pandemic.

Journalists Helen Branswell (@HelenBranswell) of STAT and Amy Maxmen (@amymaxmen) of Nature have been chosen to receive the 2021 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

Given the remarkable quality and impact of Branswell and Maxmen’s reporting on infectious disease in a year of outstanding and critically important science journalism, the judges elected to split the prize for the third time in the history of the award. They cited Branswell for her extraordinary depth of knowledge and her prescient, sharp, high-impact coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic. Maxmen was cited for intrepid, rigorous, humane reporting that revealed the unequal toll of the pandemic by centering the voices and experiences of underserved communities.

The two journalists, the judges noted, have lifted their readers above the fog of confusion and misinformation as they worked in parallel and complementary ways to provide the public the accessible, rigorous, thoughtful coverage and authoritative insight needed to weather a dangerous and fast-moving public health crisis.

The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting is awarded annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW) for a body of work published or broadcast within the last five years. Branswell and Maxmen will share a $3,000 award and be recognized this fall during ScienceWriters2021, a joint meeting of CASW and the National Association of Science Writers.

Helen Branswell

When Helen Branswell joined STAT as a senior writer in 2015, she was already one of the world’s most authoritative reporters on infectious disease and global health, having covered the SARS crisis and the West African Ebola epidemic for The Canadian Press, in addition to myriad topics including sexually transmitted diseases and antibiotic resistance, the avian and swine flu pandemics, and MERS. She has been a Knight Fellow at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and a Nieman Fellow at Harvard. The judges noted that the years spent in research and reporting have paid off for readers in explanatory writing that conveys complex ideas in sharp, informative prose. Her work has also attracted more than 200,000 Twitter followers.

In a prescient story on scientists’ “magical thinking,” Branswell wrote with rare insight into human nature.

STAT Managing Editor Gideon Gil noted in his nomination letter that Branswell was the first American journalist to write about the coronavirus pandemic—posting a tweet on New Year’s Eve 2019 that led Esquire to dub her “the one who called it”—and filed no less than 161 articles on COVID-19 during 2020 alone. For her relentless coverage of the pandemic, Branswell was honored with the 2020 George Polk Award for Public Service and was a finalist, with STAT colleagues Andrew Joseph and Sharon Begley, for the Pulitzer Prize in Breaking News Reporting.

The Cohn Prize judges made special note of Branswell’s April 2020 story “The months of magical thinking: As the coronavirus swept over China, some experts were in denial.” They said the story, a demonstration of the veteran reporter’s “rare insight into human nature,” helped readers understand “how even some of the best scientists didn’t quite allow themselves to see the magnitude of what was coming.”

Amy Maxmen

Trained in evolutionary biology, Amy Maxmen was an award-winning freelance science writer when she joined Nature full time as a senior reporter in 2017. In nominating her, Nature Features Editor Brendan Maher noted that Maxmen has reported on outbreaks around the world, including drug-resistant malaria in Myanmar and Cambodia, HIV in South Africa, tuberculosis in Tanzania, and Ebola in the Democratic Republic of the Congo and Sierra Leone. Her enterprise reporting has appeared in The New York Times, National Geographic, Wired, and other outlets in addition to Nature and has been honored with both the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Award and the Bricker Award for Science Writing in Medicine, in addition to awards from the National Association of Science Writers and Association of Health Care Journalists.

Maxmen’s reporting on the deadly toll of inequality during the pandemic held “a massive mirror up to our society as a whole.”

In the teeth of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maxmen spent eight months reporting on the unequal toll of the SARS-CoV2 virus in California’s rural San Joaquin Valley with support from a fellowship from the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, and a subsequent award from the Pulitzer Center. The judges made note of the intrepid reporting and vivid, compassionate writing that went into “Inequality’s deadly toll,” a multimedia package published in English and Spanish by Nature in April 2021. In her demonstration of how decades of low wages, the erosion of labor protections, and housing segregation exacerbated the toll of COVID-19 among agricultural workers, one judge said, “she is holding a massive mirror up to our society as a whole.” Another called the story one that is “nuanced and will haunt me for years.”

Branswell and Maxmen are the 24th and 25th recipients of the Cohn prize, given for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years.

CASW, a not-for-profit organization committed to improving the quality of science news and information reaching the public, produces the New Horizons in Science program at the annual ScienceWriters conference. In addition to conference presentations and workshops, CASW’s programs include the Taylor/Blakeslee Fellowships in support of graduate study in science writing; the Clark/Payne Award for a young science journalist; a new early-career fellowship program in science, health and environmental reporting; and other efforts in support of quality, diversity, and sustainability in science journalism.

The Victor Cohn Prize

This year’s Cohn Prize entries were judged by Jill U. Adams, a freelance science journalist and Washington Post health columnist; freelance writer and author Christie Aschwanden, a New York Times contributor and author most recently of Good to Go: What the Athlete in All of Us Can Learn from the Strange Science of Recovery; John Fauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter and winner of the Cohn Prize in 2013; freelance science writer and editor Lauren Gravitz; Cristine Russell, a senior fellow and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School; and Ed Yong, staff writer for The Atlantic and recipient of the 2020 Cohn Prize.

The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting has been presented since 2000. In addition to Fauber and Yong, past recipients include Laurie Garrett of Newsday; Lawrence K. Altman of The New York Times; Jon Palfreman, a public television documentarian; Daniel Q. Haney, medical editor of 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; 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; freelance health reporter and former NPR correspondent Joanne Silberner; Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times; Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel; Liz Szabo, health writer for USA Today and senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News; Sharon Begley, senior science writer at STAT; freelance medical writer Laura Beil; and Apoorva Mandavilli, founder and editor-in-chief of the autism website Spectrum and now a New York Times science writer.

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 authored 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 Helen Branswell’s recent work (Twitter: @HelenBranswell), visit her page at STAT.

To read Amy Maxmen’s recent work (Twitter: @amymaxmen), visit her website and her page at Nature.

To learn more about CASW (Twitter: @sciencewriting), the Cohn Prize, and past recipients, visit the CASW website.