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Shining a spotlight on local science journalism
The Knight Science Journalism program’s Victor K. McElheny Award honors outstanding local and regional journalists’ reporting on science, public health, tech, and the environment.
The value of local reporting
Local reporting is a critical tool in the battle against disinformation and misinformation. It can also provide valuable data about everything from environmental damage derived from questionable agribusiness practices to the long-term effects of logging on communities.
Reporting like this requires more than just journalistic chops. It needs a network that can share these important stories, access to readers, and financial support. That’s why organizations like MIT’s Knight Science Journalism program and its Victor K. McElheny Award are important.
(from left) Gavin Off, Adam Wagner, Ruth McElheny, Victor McElheny, Cathy Clabby, and Deborah Blum gather to celebrate Victor K. McElheny Award winners. Photo: Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT
Founded in 2018 with a gift from Knight Science Journalism Founding Director Victor McElheny and his wife, Ruth McElheny, the Knight Science Journalism at MIT’s Victor K. McElheny Award rewards local science journalists for their pioneering work and their stories’ impacts.
“The prize can help illustrate a continuing contribution to the maximum level of public understanding of what technology and science are achieving, and what these achievements imply for humanity,” McElheny said.
The award comes with a $10,000 prize.
“Local science journalism has value, in part, because consolidation in this sector has meant fewer journalists and a shrinking pool of resources with which to do this important work,” noted editor Cathy Clabby, a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship Program alumna (2008). Clabby was part of the team at The Charlotte Observer and The Raleigh News & Observer who earned the McElheny Award in 2023 for its poultry farm investigation.
“Local science journalism has value, in part, because consolidation in this sector has meant fewer journalists and a shrinking pool of resources with which to do this important work.” - Cathy Clabby, 2023 Victor K. McElheny Award recipient
"The award demonstrated a commitment to high journalistic standards," Clabby continued.
These journalistic standards and the accompanying national recognition for awardees can lend further legitimacy to long-form science journalism.
Features and outcomes
Additionally, while some news outlets are starved of the resources necessary to produce deeply-researched, high-quality stories, receiving the McElheny Award can help raise the visibility of small and nonprofit newsrooms, which can help with circulation, operating expenses, and fundraising.
“The award has a very real value to our audience, especially as we develop our digital subscriber model,” noted journalist Tony Bartelme, one of several Charleston Post and Courier reporters whose feature on the Gulf Stream won the inaugural award in 2019. “If readers see this kind of national recognition, they’re more likely to see the value of subscribing.”
Knight Science Journalism Program Associate Director Ashley Smart addresses the audience during the Victor K. McElheny Awards. Photo: Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT
“The financial element of the award is certainly a delightful surprise, particularly for a team project like this with a small budget,” said journalist Aaron Scott, whose team at Oregon Public Broadcasting won for its ‘Timber Wars’ podcast series in 2021. “It filled me with joy getting to tell my colleagues they'd be getting bonus checks in the mail.”
Deborah Blum – the Pulitzer Prize-winning director of the Knight Science Journalism program and founder of Undark Magazine – argues that local and regional journalists play a central role in promoting science literacy and critical thinking skills among their readers. Blum describes an information ecosystem worthy of preservation, with local science journalism acting as a fundamental building block of public consciousness and shared understanding.
"Science stories told by reporters in the home community, known and trusted by their neighbors, have a special ability to reach readers and listeners," Blum continued.
Value, vision, and recognition
Storytelling has value beyond views, clicks, and shares, according to McElheny award winners.
“The financial element of the award is certainly a delightful surprise, particularly for a team project like this with a small budget.” - Aaron Scott, 2021 Victor K. McElheny Award recipient
“An informed electorate helps ensure a functional and accountable government,” Clabby asserted.
Journalists point to the skills necessary to produce thoughtful, reasoned stories that can impact readers, communities, and other journalists as valuable assets for creating powerful pieces.
“Science journalism is hard to do because it takes time to wade through it all and understand the science with enough depth to tell the story properly,” Bartelme said. “But, what’s more important than a planet on fire?”
Further, recognition from their peers can serve as validation for what can sometimes become months of research and reporting to produce such important stories.
Knight Science Journalism Program Director Deborah Blum addresses the audience during the Victor K. McElheny Award ceremony. Photo: Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT
“Recognition [as evidenced by] the Victor K. McElheny Award is deeply rewarding,” Scott believes, “because it means some of our most accomplished and thoughtful peers are listening to, reading, and thinking deeply about a story we've invested so much in telling.”
Outcomes and impacts
The Victor K. McElheny Award for Local Science Journalism confers national recognition on journalists performing a critical function in producing an informed electorate. Local science journalism can have lasting impacts on readers, apprise audiences of advances and challenges related to science and technology, and help secure funding for current and future efforts.
“The McElheny Award is really the only award that celebrates science stories that reach this important audience” - Tony Bartelme, 2019 Victor K. McElheny Award recipient
“Fact-based journalism has value for audiences,” Clabby said.
Scott, noting the value of balanced science reporting, described science journalism as “both more important, and more under threat by politicization, than ever before.”
“The McElheny Award is really the only award that celebrates science stories that reach this important audience,” Bartelme concluded. “Local journalists have a special and often more intimate relationship with readers than national organizations.”
If you're a local science journalist with a feature worthy of Victor K. McElheny Award recognition, you're invited to submit your piece for consideration before the January 31 deadline. You can also review the submission and eligibility guidelines.
Contact the Knight Science Journalism program for more information.
Benjamin Daniel | Knight Science Journalism @ MIT
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