Liz Szabo wins 2016 Victor Cohn Prize for medical science journalism for work at USA Today

Liz Szabo, whose work as USA Today’s medical reporter combined authoritative breaking-news coverage with dogged investigative journalism, is the recipient of the 2016 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

Judges cited Szabo, who recently joined Kaiser Health News as a senior correspondent, for outstanding reporting that “embodies the best of medical journalism and the Cohn award: scientific accuracy, fairness, humanity, and most of all, a deep understanding of the complexities of modern medicine.” She is the 19th 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.

Szabo’s work on the USA Today breaking news team, the judges said, demonstrates that a skilled and determined reporter can explain complex science accurately on deadline, put medical developments in context and provide sustained, incisive coverage of policy issues affecting everyone. They praised her for reporting characterized by “exceptional robustness and commitment.”

Liz Szabo at lecturn
Liz Szabo making remarks after the Cohn prize presentation

Szabo was selected from a field of talented nominees whose work epitomized fine medical reporting and writing. The judges found that the work of several of the nominees met the Cohn Prize’s requirement of “uncommon clarity, accuracy, breadth of coverage, enterprise, originality, insight and narrative power.” Szabo stood out in part, they say, because of her tenacious and high-impact reporting from the front lines of medicine and her determination to provide readers an accurate and complete picture.

Among the articles cited by the judges was “Zika could hit people in poverty hardest,” part of Szabo’s extensive reporting on emerging disease threats, which laid out the powerful connections among poverty, environment and health that make it impossible for many poor families to protect themselves against disease.

Her nomination also included some of the articles, illustrations, videos and podcasts Szabo developed for a series, “The Cost of Not Caring,” that exposed the financial and human price that our country pays for neglecting the 10 million American with serious mental illness. This work has been credited with building a foundation for mental health reform legislation now before Congress. In a letter supporting the nomination, Marilynn Marchione of the Associated Press said “The Cost of Not Caring,” along with Szabo’s other work, shows “the impact a writer can have with a high volume of excellent, day-to-day beat reporting, using all sites and platforms available to reach the widest possible audience.”

Doctor accused of selling false hope to families” was one of several articles resulting from Szabo’s months-long investigation of Houston doctor Stanislaw Burzynski, which pulled back the curtain on the inner workings of the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and showed how the agency failed to act on longstanding complaints that the physician, who continues to be the subject of controversy, abused patients’ trust by peddling expensive and unproven therapies.

In her nominating letter, Donna Leinwand Leger, USA Today managing editor (breaking news), noted that Szabo “never shies away from the toughest issues.” Leinwand Leger added that Szabo has developed “a vast array of loyal sources whom she can call on, day or night, because they trust her and respect her.”

Liz Szabo (left) receiving the Cohn prize from CASW President Alan Boyle (right)
Liz Szabo (left) receiving the Cohn prize from CASW President Alan Boyle (right)

“In the past few years, Liz has tackled all of the world’s major health stories, from Ebola to Zika, with aplomb,” Leinwand Leger wrote. “She not only covers breaking news, but consistently develops enterprise stories that push our readers to understand the issues behind the outbreaks.”

Szabo received a $3,000 award and certificate at a ceremony in San Antonio, Texas, on Oct. 29, during ScienceWriters2016, a series of presentations, meetings, and workshops jointly organized by CASW and the National Association of Science Writers (NASW). CASW is a not-for-profit organization of journalists and scientists committed to improving the quality of science news and information reaching the public.

Liz Szabo

Liz Szabo (@LizSzabo) is now an enterprise reporter focusing on acute care and end-of-life issues for Kaiser Health News. She spent 12 years as a health writer at USA Today. “The Cost of Not Caring” has also been honored with a National Headliner Award, an Association of Health Care Journalists award for health policy reporting, and the James Aronson Award for Social Justice Journalism from Hunter College. Before joining USA Today, her investigation of dangerous doctors for The (Norfolk, Va.) Virginian-Pilot won two National Press Club awards and led Virginia lawmakers to tighten state laws for disciplining physicians. She has more than 50,000 Twitter followers

This year’s Cohn Prize entries were judged by Ben Patrusky, CASW’s executive director emeritus; Joann Rodgers, a freelance writer and author, a CASW past president and current board member, and instructor at the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health; and Cristine Russell, CASW’s immediate past president and a current board member, freelance writer, and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School.

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; 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; and Mark Johnson of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

The Victor Cohn Prize

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 Liz Szabo’s (Twitter: @LizSzabo) work, visit the USA Today website.

Learn more about the Cohn Prize and past recipients.

Photographs by Greg Harrison