Pam Belluck and Stephanie M. Lee share 2022 Victor Cohn Prize

Stephanie M. Lee (left) and Pam Belluck, winners of the 2022 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting. Belluck photo by David Beyda.

Career award celebrates two journalists notable for narratives filled with telling detail and humanity, and for uncovering high-impact stories that others miss.

Journalists Pam Belluck of The New York Times (@PamBelluck) and Stephanie M. Lee (@stephaniemlee), formerly with BuzzFeed News, have been chosen to receive the 2022 Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting.

The field of nominees for this year’s prize was so competitive, and the two journalists’ reporting and writing so distinctive, that the judges elected to split the prize for the third time since the inaugural award in 2000. They cited Belluck for clear, concise, engaging, unflinching stories told with kindness and sensitivity. Lee was hailed for ambitious, responsible, high-impact investigative journalism done with keen insight into the culture of health and science. 

Both journalists, the judges noted, have excelled at digging up and reporting important stories that others have missed or dismissed. Their writing, humane and full of compelling detail, has given their stories both accessibility and high impact. 

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. Belluck and Lee will share a cash award and be recognized during an October 22 awards ceremony at ScienceWriters2022, a joint meeting of CASW and the National Association of Science Writers to be held in Memphis this fall.

Pam Belluck

Pam Belluck began uncovering medical stories as a national bureau chief at the Times, initiating important enterprise stories on Alzheimer’s disease and mental illness. A Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT helped propel her full-time onto the health and science beat, where her stories—which Times Deputy Health and Science Editor Hilary Stout, in a nomination letter, called “riveting, trailblazing, and illuminating”—have spanned the globe and touched on complex and controversial topics from gene editing to abortion. Her work, Stout noted, “brings nuance and context to divisive topics like abortion and delicate subjects like mental health, and her stories shine light on undercovered issues and give voice to people whose concerns have been sidelined or underrepresented.”

The Cohn Prize judges took special note of Belluck’s coronavirus coverage, which included the wrenching story of a patient ravaged by the virus in the early days of the pandemic and a dive into the phenomenon of post-Covid psychosis. Her work, they said, “shows a broad range, an unflinching style, and an ability to walk us through important ideas in ways that feel as though she’s holding your hand without being intrusive… to tell personal stories with kindness and sensitivity.” Judges also commented on Belluck’s “exceptional ability to show her sources’ humanity—something that is difficult to do well.”

Belluck’s reporting has earned her a Nellie Bly Award for Best Front Page Story (for a story focused on women traumatized by genital cutting), three New York Press Club awards (including one for reporting in Brazil on babies harmed by Zika), and, along with six colleagues, a Pulitzer Prize for an investigation of lapses and failures in the 2014 Ebola crisis. She contributed, along with many colleagues, to the paper’s coronavirus pandemic coverage, which earned the Times a 2021 Pulitzer for public service. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Science Writing and The Best American Sports Writing.

An international-relations graduate of Princeton University who started in journalism as a freelance foreign correspondent and worked as a staff writer for The Atlanta Journal-Constitution and The Philadelphia Inquirer, Belluck has been a Fulbright Scholar in the Philippines and a Case Media Fellow at Indiana University. An accomplished jazz flutist, she is also the author of the 2012 nonfiction book Island Practice, about an eccentric doctor.

Stephanie M. Lee

Stephanie M. Lee covered biotech, local politics, and health at the San Francisco Chronicle before joining BuzzFeed News in 2015. At BuzzFeed, her stunning investigations shone a spotlight on scientific misconduct and the manipulation of academic research by industry. She exposed the data manipulations of Cornell food marketing professor Brian Wansink, who had grabbed headlines and funding with his pronouncements on healthy eating. She investigated a study by John Ioannidis and his colleagues at Stanford that made a splash early in the coronavirus pandemic when it claimed to show COVID-19 was no more dangerous than the flu. Lee uncovered serious flaws in the study; her stories also showed that Ioannidis had organized an effort to lobby the White House against pandemic lockdowns before collecting any data and that the study had been secretly funded by David Neeleman, the founder of JetBlue and a vocal lockdown opponent. 

In her tenacious reporting on these stories and others, Lee used original investigative techniques to dig up facts, Retraction Watch co-founder Ivan Oransky noted in a nominating letter. Although Wansink worked at a private institution not subject to public records laws, Lee obtained correspondence from collaborators at public institutions. Public-records requests for emails also uncovered Ioannidis’s lobbying efforts. Lee’s investigations have “been an inspiration—even a guidebook—to those who cover misconduct,” wrote Oransky, who is editor-in-chief of the autism website Spectrum and distinguished writer in residence at NYU’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute.

The judges praised Lee for taking on “ambitious and non-obvious stories” and producing work that is “entertaining and fresh and rich in telling details.” Lee, they said, “has excelled at the important job of holding scientists and scientific institutions accountable,” with lasting and far-reaching impact. Noted one judge: “Her stories have exposed academic racism, terrible science, and how money has influenced the course of scientific research and public health policy.”

Lee is a graduate of the University of California at Berkeley, where she was a comparative literature major, and  mentors young science journalists through The Open Notebook. Her work has been anthologized in The Best American Food Writing and noted in The Best American Science and Nature Writing. Lee will join the Chronicle of Higher Education this fall as a senior reporter writing features and investigations about the intersection of research and society.

The Victor Cohn Prize

Belluck and Lee are the 26th and 27th recipients of the Cohn Prize, given for a body of work published or broadcast within the past five years. This year’s entries were judged by freelance medical writer Laura Beil, winner of the 2018 Cohn Prize; John Fauber, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel investigative reporter and winner of the Cohn Prize in 2013; freelance science writer and editor Lauren Gravitz; Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American; and Cristine Russell, a senior fellow and adjunct lecturer at the Harvard Kennedy School and past president of CASW. The judging was chaired by 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 and vice president of CASW.

The Victor Cohn Prize for Excellence in Medical Science Reporting has been presented since 2000. In addition to Beil and 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; the late Sharon Begley, senior science writer at STAT; Apoorva Mandavilli, founder of Spectrum and now a New York Times science writer; Helen Branswell of STAT; and Nature senior reporter Amy Maxmen.

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.

CASW is a not-for-profit organization committed to improving the quality and quantity of science news reaching the public.

To read Pam Belluck’s recent work, visit her page at the New York Times.

To read Stephanie M. Lee’s recent work, visit her website.

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