The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT has named Oregon Public Broadcasting’s “Timber Wars” podcast as 2021 winner of the prestigious Victor K. McElheny Award for local and regional science journalism. The seven-part series tells the story of how a group of activists and scientists turned a fight over logging and animal protection into one of the biggest environmental conflicts of the 20th century — a conflict that still resonates in culture wars today. The podcast is the first work of audio journalism to win the McElheny Award in the competition’s three-year history.
Judges praised “Timber Wars” for its rigorous reporting, artful storytelling, and deft handling of intricate science. “It ticks all the boxes: superb craftsmanship and storytelling; delightful science that is explained without pedantry; and real impact,” said the jury. “They really dug into the history and were able to connect it to the current day.” The podcast also resonated with policymakers. Oregon State Representative Dacia Grayber called it “the best history and take on this I’ve ever heard.”
“Timber Wars” was conceived and executive produced by Ed Jahn, of Oregon Public Broadcasting’s Science and Environment team. Aaron Scott, a producer and reporter for “Oregon Field Guide,” was the podcast’s reporter, writer, host, and lead producer. David Steves, Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, and Laura Gibson contributed to editing, production, sound design, and music composition.
The winning entry topped a large and highly competitive field of submissions from media outlets across the country. Also making the short list of finalists were: The Boston Globe’s “The Virus's Tale,” a day-by-day account of the handling of the city’s first Covid-19 cases; an investigation by The Detroit Free Press and Type Investigations into Detroit housing demolitions and their potential role in child lead poisoning; a feature by Boston-based WBUR on the quest to return loons to their native Massachusetts habitats; and a series from The Arizona Republic that chronicles how Indigenous Hopi are grappling with climate change and vanishing water sources.
"It was really a stellar year for local science reporting,” says Knight Science Journalism Program director Deborah Blum. “It was heartening to see so many insightful and beautifully told stories across such a range of environmental issues. These works are a reminder of just how integral science is to our everyday lives, and how crucial it is that local journalists receive support to tell these stories."
Named after the Knight Science Journalism Program’s founding director, the Victor K. McElheny Award was established to honor outstanding coverage of science, public-health, technology, and environmental issues at the local and regional level. Members of the winning “Timber Wars” team will receive the award’s $5,000 prize. Due to the pandemic, the Knight Science Journalism Program will not hold an in-person award ceremony this year.
The Knight Science Journalism Program extends a special thanks to the award’s jury: Rachel Ehrenberg, Knowable Magazine; Sujata Gupta, Science News; Eric Hand, Science; Emily Laber-Warren, Craig Newmark Graduate School of Journalism at CUNY; Dave Spratt, Institute for Journalism & Natural Resources, and screeners. The McElheny Award is made possible by generous support from Victor K. McElheny, Ruth McElheny, and the Rita Allen Foundation.
The 2021 McElheny Award honorees:
- "Timber Wars" (Episodes 1 and 2), Oregon Public Broadcasting. (Ed Jahn, Aaron Scott, David Steves, Peter Frick-Wright, Robbie Carver, and Laura Gibson)
- "The Virus’s Tale," The Boston Globe. (Evan Allen, Bob Hohler, Neil Swidey)
- "Children Were at Risk so Detroit Promised to Halt Demolitions. But That Didn’t Happen." Detroit Free Press and Type Investigations. (Katrease Stafford, Kristi Tanner)
- To Bring Loons Back To Mass., Biologists Must Convince The Birds This Is Home, WBUR. (Miriam Wasser, Jesse Costa)
- "As Crops Wither, the Hopi Fear for Their Way of Life, As Springs on Hopi Land Decline, a Sacred Connection is Threatened, and Hopi Tribe Pushes for Solutions in Long Struggle for Water," The Arizona Republic. (Ian James, David Wallace)
The Knight Science Journalism Program at MIT, founded more than 30 years ago, seeks to nurture and enhance the ability of journalists from around the world to accurately document and illuminate the often complex intersection of science, technology, and human culture. It does so through an acclaimed fellowship program — which hosts 10 or more journalists every academic year — and also through
science-focused seminars, skills-focused master classes, workshops, and publications. Since it began, the program has hosted more than 300 fellows, who continue to cover science across a range of platforms in the United States, including The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, Forbes, Time, Scientific American, Science, the Associated Press, and broadcast outlets ranging from ABC News to CNN, as well as in numerous other countries.