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AGU announces 2012 journalism awards

Freelance journalist Stephen S. Hall has won the 2012 Walter Sullivan award of the American Geophysical Union (AGU).

A team at The Washington Post, including two staff writers, Brian Vastag and Steven Mufson, and the Post's Graphics Staff, have won AGU's 2012 David Perlman award.

The Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism-Features honors outstanding reporting on the Earth and space sciences under a deadline of more than one week. Stephen Hall has been chosen for the award for his article "At Fault?" published by Nature magazine on 15 September 2011.

"At Fault?" examines the political and legal repercussions of the 2009 L'Aquila, Italy, earthquake for seismologists who had attempted to convey risk assessments to the public during the series of earthquakes. These quakes devastated the medieval town and caused numerous deaths. Several scientists are now on trial for not giving strong enough warnings to residents, despite the inexact nature of seismic risk assessment.

The panel of award judges found Hall's article to be "wonderfully written, with human interest and appeal," commending it as "a focused, yet deep, look at a topic that will likely become very important in future decades and disasters." Among individual judges' comments was praise for Hall for "how he took a regional court case about a single natural disaster and broadened it into something relevant for all of us - the role of scientists in estimating risk and making forecasts."

"This story communicates not only the importance, but also the risk of communicating science," commented another judge. "It was written for scientists and the general public, and is very relevant to both."

Hall's article is available online at

Receiving this year's David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism-News are Steven Mufson, Brian Vastag, and The Washington Post Graphics Staff. The Perlman award honors outstanding reporting on the Earth and space sciences under a deadline of one week or less. This year's award recognizes the article "For Virginia's fault zone, an event of rare magnitude" that ran online on 23 August 2011, the day an unusual 5.8 magnitude earthquake shook up the Washington, D.C., region. The article appeared the next day in the newspaper's print editions.

Vastag and Mufson's article examines and explains the extraordinary temblor - the largest to strike Virginia since 1897 -- from many angles, including how it compares to earthquakes in other regions and to what is expected along the U.S. East Coast. Having reached at least eight scientists as sources for their story, the reporters gathered a broad scientific perspective on the earthquake, from the temblor's magnitude and its geologic setting, to how widely it was felt and its possible causes.

In commending the story, the Perlman Award judges noted that "In addition to being well- written, the article ... provided a good, concise, and clear summary about the earthquake, addressed questions the public might ask about the earthquake, and ... had a very impressive, fast turnaround of one day." They recommended the article for the award for bringing new information and concepts about AGU sciences to the public's attention and making sciences accessible and interesting to general audiences without sacrificing accuracy.

The judges also remarked upon the article's accompanying graphic - at once eye-catching, colorful, and informative - which geographically illustrates the recent seismic history of the region and shows where the earthquake took place relative to the vast, ever-moving tectonic plates that make up the crust of the Earth.

Vastag and Mufson's article appears online at

The 2012 Sullivan and Perlman awardees will receive their awards in December in San Francisco during the AGU Fall Meeting, an annual scientific conference expected to attract more than 20,000 attendees this year.

AGU's Sullivan and Perlman Awards are named, respectively, for Walter Sullivan, the late science editor of The New York Times, and David Perlman, science editor of the San Francisco Chronicle. Each award consists of a plaque and a $5,000 stipend.

AGU is the world's largest organization of Earth and space scientists, with more than 60,000 members worldwide. By means of journalism awards, mass media fellowships, communications workshops for scientists, and other programs, AGU encourages excellence in reporting news and information about the Earth and space sciences to the general public.

For further information about AGU journalism awards and other AGU honors, see

Peter Weiss | American Geophysical Union
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