Ed Yong awarded 2020 Victor Cohn Prize for medical science reporting

Ed Yong (@edyong209), a staff writer for The Atlantic, is the recipient of the 2020 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

Judges for the prize, awarded annually by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing (CASW), cited Yong for his “relentless reporting, insatiable curiosity and storytelling of extraordinary clarity, accessibility, depth and accuracy.”

Nominations for this year’s prize—described by one judge as a “grand crowd of entries”—included the work of 16 journalists who rose to the challenge of covering the COVID-19 pandemic with stunning reporting. Among those, Yong’s work stood out as authoritative, incisive, and both deeply and broadly sourced. “It’s as if he ascends to the 30,000-foot view before the rest of us get on the plane,” wrote another judge.

The judges made special note of a remarkable enterprise project Yong undertook in 2018 for The Atlantic, “The Next Plague Is Coming. Is America Ready?” Drawing on reporting that took him as far as Central Africa, and on his long experience covering the science of infectious diseases, he laid out in devastating detail the likely consequences of a pandemic hitting the United States. “He saw very early what was coming, and rang the alarm bells, and prepared himself for the challenge,” his editors at the magazine wrote.

In their nominating letters, Yong’s editors aptly described his stories as “so sharply and clearly written, so packed with vital information, so analytically astute, and so suffused with humanity [that they] have become guideposts for millions of our readers, and for his colleagues and competitors across journalism.” Yong writes, they said, “beautifully, with joy, enthusiasm and erudition, about a subject that deserves the best writing.”

“It’s as if he ascends to the 30,000-foot view before the rest of us get on the plane,” wrote a judge.

In addition to the 2018 story, the judges noted that Yong was one of the first journalists to report in depth on COVID-19’s “long-haulers.” In “COVID-19 Can Last for Several Months,” published by The Atlantic in early June 2020, he described how some coronavirus patients not only suffered waves of debilitating symptoms but also faced disbelief from friends and doctors who questioned how they could possibly be sick for so long. (A followup story was published Aug. 19.)

Yong is known for making sure that his stories include marginalized and underrepresented voices and issues, and for holding himself and his profession accountable for representing society’s diverse interests. Behind the scenes, Yong’s editors say, he presses them “about ways we can make our journalism more accessible, more representative, and more open to new ideas and new communities,” and is unceasingly generous in his support of fellow science writers.

Yong is the 23rd recipient of the Cohn Prize, given for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years. He will receive a $3,000 award and certificate and will be honored in a virtual awards celebration planned for September by CASW and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW).

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. ScienceWriters2020, including the presentation of the Cohn Prize, was to have been held in Colorado this October, but owing to the pandemic is being replaced by a series of virtual events.

Ed Yong

Ed Yong started his writing career in 2006 by creating a science blog, Not Exactly Rocket Science, as a side project while working for a cancer research charity. Before that, he trained in zoology and biochemistry but describes himself as the world’s worst graduate student. His work has been featured by National Geographic, The New Yorker, Wired, Nature, New Scientist and Scientific American, among others. He has previously been recognized with a National Academies Keck Science Communication Award, the Byron H. Waksman Award for Excellence in the Public Communication of Life Sciences, and the Michael E. DeBakey Journalism Award for biomedical reporting.

His stories and books reflect a wide-ranging curiosity about the life of our planet and span 3.7 billion years, from the origin of life to this month’s developments in Congress. Yong’s first book, the New York Times bestseller I Contain Multitudes, looks at the amazing partnerships between animals and microbes. The arrival of the pandemic pulled him away from a book leave; his second book, An Immense World, will look at the extraordinary sensory worlds of other animals.

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, 2019–20 Knight Science Journalism Fellow and winner of the Cohn Prize in 2013; Joann Rodgers, former national science correspondent and columnist for the Hearst Newspapers, and longtime executive director of media relations and public affairs for Johns Hopkins Medicine; and freelance science journalist Cristine Russell, a senior fellow and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School. Rodgers and Russell are both former presidents of CASW and NASW.

The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting has been presented since 2000. In addition to Fauber, 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.

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 Ed Yong’s work (Twitter: @edyong209), visit his website and his Atlantic author page.

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