Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reporter Mark Johnson awarded 2015 Victor Cohn Prize for medical science journalism

Milwaukee Journal Sentinel science and medical reporter Mark Johnson, a career newspaper journalist whose work is marked by its scientific breadth, human impact and storytelling verve, is the recipient of the 2015 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

Judges for 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, and now in its 16th year, cited Johnson for his “extraordinary ability to combine long-form, ‘inside’ stories of complex scientific research with a deeply human dimension” and to “write with such passion, narrative style, and clarity that readers are absolutely riveted.”

Johnson, they said, “is a masterful storyteller whose character-driven, edge-of-seat narratives offer uncommonly vivid portrayals of the profound human drama and passion that lie at the heart of so many medical pursuits, especially the often frustrating and heartbreaking efforts required to solve some of medicine’s prevailing mysteries.”

His stories, the judges added, are “so compelling, and so rich with detail and reportorial craft, that learning about the process of medical science, its practitioners and the people whose lives it touches is pure pleasure.”

Johnson was selected from a field of candidates whose fine reporting and writing made the judging process both exciting and difficult. The judges found that several of the nominees’ pieces met the Cohn Prize’s requirement of “uncommon clarity, accuracy, breadth of coverage, enterprise, originality, insight and narrative power,” but Johnson’s body of work stood out.

Among the selection of articles, sidebars, graphics and social media enhancements that made up Johnson’s nomination was “In the Course of Their Lives,” which, the judges said, recounted with exquisite sensitivity the quotidian but dramatically intimate hurdles negotiated by would-be physicians in their first-year human gross anatomy class. But Johnson did even more, they said, weaving into the piece the touching stories of once and future organ donors and the bioethical dimensions of medical training.

Another entry that caught the judges’ attention was “Murray’s Problem,” which followed a scientist as he struggled with confusion, failure and self-doubt and celebrated fleeting moments of triumph. The judges noted that the story captured drama in the daily routine of laboratory research and portrayed the “deep humanity of what science is really about.”

In a series called “Deadly Delays,” the judges said, Johnson’s “simply stunning” investigative reporting skills explored the flaws and dangers in the nation’s newborn screening program, focusing on how an infant died when a hospital delayed sending his blood sample to an outside lab in order to “batch” samples and save shipping costs.

Mark Johnson (left) with CASW President Alan Boyle (right) and the Cohn Prize certificate
Mark Johnson (left) with CASW President Alan Boyle (right) and the Cohn Prize certificate

One in a Billion,” another series, read like a detective story, the judges said, tracking an almost impossible effort to identify a mysterious disease that was killing a boy and horrifying his family and the physician-scientists racing to save him. That work earned Johnson and four Journal Sentinel colleagues the 2011 Pulitzer Prize for Explanatory Reporting.

Johnson, the judges observed, has also produced daily beat stories, blogs and tweets. “His way of adapting his reporting and writing to multiple platforms that make his stories widely accessible is exemplary,” the judges said.

In his nominating letter, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel editor and vice president George Stanley wrote: “Mark’s work is unmatched when it comes to depth, storytelling and helping readers understand complicated science and medical issues. Mark’s stories are always told with care, with nuance and through the eyes of real people – patients, parents, doctors.”

Johnson, who joined the Milwaukee daily in 2000, received a $3,000 award and certificate at a ceremony in Cambridge, Massachusetts, on Oct. 10, during ScienceWriters2015, 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.

Journal Sentinel cited

The Cohn Prize judges this year also issued a special citation to the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel for its “enduring and outstanding commitment to medical science coverage, and its unwavering support for journalists who epitomize the craft and legacy of the man this prize honors.” Another Milwaukee Journal Sentinel medical writer, John Fauber, won the Cohn Prize in 2013.

Mark Johnson

Mark Johnson came to Milwaukee as a general assignment reporter, covering the immediate aftermath of the Sept. 11, 2001 terror attacks in New York, the 2000 presidential ballot controversy in Florida and the 2003 Space Shuttle explosion in Houston. He became a health and science writer in 2008. Since that time, in addition to the 2011 Pulitzer, he has been a three-time Pulitzer Finalist, and received both the National Academies of Science Communication Award and an American Association for the Advancement of Science Kavli Science Journalism Award.

Prior to working for the Journal Sentinel, Johnson covered small towns for the Providence (R.I.) Journal. In the early 1990s he covered family issues for the Rockford (Ill.) Register Star. From 1987 to 1990, he covered southern New Hampshire and business for a small daily, the Haverhill (Mass.) Gazette. He began his newspaper career covering town hall and the fishing industry for the weekly Provincetown (Mass.) Advocate.

Johnson lives with his wife, the writer Mary-Elizabeth Shaw, and their son, the composer Evan Johnson. He also played (“badly,” he reports) guitar for a punk band in Rockford, Ill., called The Bloody Stumps.

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 part-time faculty scholar at the Johns Hopkins Berman Institute of Bioethics; Cristine Russell, CASW’s immediate past president and a current board member, freelance writer, and senior fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School; and Ron Winslow, NASW’s immediate past president, a Wall Street Journal medical writer and past winner of the Cohn Prize.

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 Marchionne 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; and Elisabeth Rosenthal of The New York Times.

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.

Read Mark Johnson’s (@majohnso) work at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.

Learn more about the Victor Cohn Prize and past recipients.