John D. Sutter wins Sharon Begley Award for Science Reporting

John D. Sutter (Photo by Beth Mickalonis)

John D. Sutter (@jdsutter), an independent science and environmental journalist and filmmaker whose remarkable documentaries and investigative reporting have taken audiences to the front lines of the climate crisis, has been selected as the winner of the 2023 Sharon Begley Award for Science Reporting.

The Sharon Begley Award was established in 2022 by the Council for the Advancement of Science Writing to recognize and support reporting and writing that embodies the high standards exemplified by the late science journalist Sharon Begley (1956–2021). The winner receives a $20,000 grant to support a significant reporting project.

Sutter was selected from a competitive field of mid-career science journalists hailing from eight countries and working in online, print, video, and audio.

“In his reports about Earth’s changing climate, John brings levels of doggedness, depth and sensitivity that clearly meet the standards set by Sharon—who covered the climate issue extensively during her own career,” said Alan Boyle, immediate past president of CASW and co-chair of the Begley Award judging committee. “We’re proud to play a pivotal role in bringing BASELINE, John’s grand journalistic project, to a global audience.”

John Sutter

The judges hailed Sutter’s work as “topnotch video storytelling, compassionate, authoritative, ambitious, very engaging, sometimes surprising.”

In recommending him for the award, Jan Winburn, a University of Georgia professor and former assistant managing editor of CNN Investigations, called Sutter “a relentless reporter, a lyrical writer, a journalist undaunted by difficult subjects, corporate obstacles, and logistical challenges.”

Winburn and Sutter are current collaborators who worked together when Sutter was a senior writer and producer/director of award-winning stories and digital documentaries at CNN. Winburn noted that Sutter combined a commitment to accuracy in science reporting with a passion for the underdog. “His work as a climate correspondent and analyst prioritizes the people who, though they contribute least to global warming, will suffer most,” she wrote. “His reporting contributes to our understanding of science and of ourselves.”

Emelie Mahdavian, an award-winning filmmaker and assistant professor of film and media at the University of Utah, called Sutter “that rare example of someone with a gift for storytelling, a powerful intellect, and a compassionate and thoughtful attitude towards the world.” Mahdavian said Sutter “recognizes the inequities built into the conversation about climate, and he has spent years researching and building the relationships to tell these stories ethically and collaboratively.” Sutter is producing a Mahdavian-directed documentary that follows a group of glaciologists on their final trip to the ice shelf of Thwaites Glacier in Antarctica.

John D. Sutter hails from Oklahoma and began his journalism career as a staff writer at The Oklahoman. He joined CNN Digital in 2009 and served CNN as a writer/producer, columnist, and senior investigative reporter over the following decade, writing, producing and contributing to a number of documentaries and other network initiatives, including Slavery’s Last Stronghold, Vanishing: Earth’s Extinction Crisis, Two Degrees, Change the List, What Really Happened in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria? and The Road to Change: America’s Climate Crisis.

His work has been supported by National Geographic, the Sundance Institute, Sandbox Films, the Catapult Film Fund, and the National Science Foundation and recognized with numerous awards. Sutter’s long list of honors includes the prestigious Livingston Award for Young Journalists, the IRE Award, the Edward R. Murrow Award, the Peabody Award, an Online News Association Award, and two Emmy nominations. He was named as one of two finalists for the first Sharon Begley Award in 2022.

The CASW award judges cited Sutter’s work as a teacher and as a mentor, roles often played by Sharon Begley. He has been an instructor for the Poynter Institute for Media Studies since 2019, has taught at the Caribbean Investigative Journalism Workshop for Puerto Rico’s Centro de Periodismo Investigativo, and in January 2023 was named the inaugural Ted Turner Visiting Professor of Environmental Journalism at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs.

Sutter left CNN in 2019 to pursue a major personal project called BASELINE. He found himself terrified by the concept of “shifting baselines” popularized by fisheries biologist Daniel Pauly—the fact that massive environmental change may be barely perceived because it moves slowly, our baselines shifting through time. He recalls realizing that point-in-time storytelling was missing the story of the climate crisis, that it “needed to be told on something closer to its own timeline—across decades, at the very least.”

The Sharon Begley Award grant will support the first installment of BASELINE, a documentary series that will follow children growing up on the front lines of climate change through the year 2050. The grant will support editing, a science review, and postproduction work for the first installment, written as a letter to the children and scheduled for release by 2024. Earlier support for the project includes a stint as a National Geographic Society Explorer grant and a MIT Knight Science Journalism Project Fellowship in 2020–21.

Sutter continues to contribute to CNN’s climate coverage and has hosted a podcast called “Heat of the Moment” for Foreign Policy. A journalism and international studies graduate of Emory University, he received an MFA in film and media arts from the University of Utah this year.

The Sharon Begley Science Reporting Award

The Sharon Begley Award was created by CASW in 2022 in collaboration with Sharon Begley’s husband, Ned Groth, a scientist, author, and environmental health consultant. It is supported by a dedicated fund established in Begley’s honor. More than 250 private donations have been received to date, adding up to approximately $840,000. The first award was presented in 2022 to Bijal Trivedi, senior editor for science at National Geographic.

At the time of Begley’s death in January 2021, she was the senior science writer at STAT, Boston Globe Media’s health and medicine news site, covering genetics, cancer, neuroscience, and other fields of basic biomedical research. Her work was recognized posthumously when she was named a 2021 Pulitzer Prize finalist along with two STAT colleagues for early reporting on the COVID-19 pandemic. Among her many other awards was CASW’s Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. STAT created the Sharon Begley Science Reporting Fellowship.

Begley was previously the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters, The Wall Street Journal‘s first science columnist, and the long-time science editor at Newsweek. She joined Newsweek upon her graduation from Yale University. In nearly 30 years at the newsweekly, she served as science columnist and editor and as a contributing writer at the magazine. Her column for The Wall Street Journal ran from 2002 to 2007, when Newsweek recruited her back, and from 2012 to 2015 she was the senior health and science correspondent at Reuters.

The judging panel for the second Sharon Begley Science Reporting Award was co-chaired by Boyle and Betsy Mason, a freelance science journalist and CASW board secretary. Judges were Laura Beil, freelance health and science journalist and podcaster and winner of CASW’s Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting; STAT Managing Editor Gideon Gil; bestselling author and independent journalist Claudia Kalb; Thomas Lin, founder and editor-in-chief of Quanta and a former CASW board member; Ashley Smart, associate director of the Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, senior editor of Undark, and CASW treasurer; and Richard Stone, senior science editor for HHMI’s Tangled Bank Studios and a CASW board member. Jonathan Woods, an Emmy-winning documentary filmmaker and producer at Working Tens, served as a video adviser for the judging panel.