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Covering the Nobel Prizes

Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Covering the science categories of the Nobel Prizes is challenging, even for a news organization with a science team, like NPR. We learned that recently as we sought answers to one listener's questions.

The Nobel Prize winners are announced every October over the course of a week. They are regarded by many as the ultimate honor in the sciences and literature. For all their significance, they get less coverage than many other less-prestigious honors.

We asked the NPR Science Desk how they plan for the awards announcement every year. We got an education about the Nobels. Read on to see what we learned.

We also spotlight a story about growing immigration in North Dakota, featuring the voices of immigrants and others in local communities.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The newsworthiness of the Nobel Prizes

Brian Baer wrote on Oct. 4: It is Nobel Prize week. Every year the science prizes seem to be covered the same way on Morning Edition as a breaking news story — i.e. like it is something unexpected.

For other major (and I would argue less important) events, say the Super Bowl, the Academy Awards, the Grammys, etc., are covered with great fanfare. There are reports days (or weeks) in advance of those events covering various aspects of the event, discussions on the makeup of the voting bodies, and speculating on possible winners/losers. For the Nobel science prizes I cannot remember any stories leading to the science awards this, or in previous years.

Why are the science Nobel prizes less worthy of coverage than equivalent entertainment/sporting events?

The Nobel Prizes are, in part, a celebration of scientists. Its categories are physics, chemistry, physiology or medicine, literature, peace and economic sciences.

The prizes aren't comparable to commercial sports and entertainment events such as the Super Bowl, Academy Awards and Grammys. And unlike these other contests, the nominations for the Nobels are kept secret. They will not be made public for at least 50 years. This means there is no buildup or buzz around the prizes until the winners are announced.

Much of NPR's coverage of the Nobels in 2023 appears to be stories about the announcements of prize recipients. Among them were stories about Norwegian playwright Jon Fosse winning the 2023 Nobel Prize in literature, and a Morning Edition segment about two scientists winning the 2023 Nobel Prize for physiology or medicine. Multiple stories focused on Narges Mohammadi, an Iranian human rights activist who remains imprisoned and was awarded the 2023 Nobel Peace Prize for her efforts to ensure human rights for women. NPR spoke with Mohammadi's husband about the award.

We asked Nell Greenfieldboyce, a science correspondent for NPR who worked on the Chemistry Prize story and has reported on the Nobels in the past, about the amount of prize coverage on NPR. In an email, she said she works with her editors on the Science Desk to choose what to cover and how to cover it.

Greenfieldboyce said that in recent years, they have been mindful of the concerns many have about the Nobel Prizes in science.

"Those concerns include: the lack of transparency in how winners are selected, the gender and racial disparities in who gets the prize, and the fact this prize is limited to only three people, who must all be alive, which means other contributors to an important field of science get ignored," she said. "These are all difficult problems when one considers that some landmark science discoveries can involve literally hundreds of researchers and support personnel, sometimes working over decades."

Greenfieldboyce added that NPR has covered all these issues related to the prizes, and shared the below examples:

  • 2020 story about how the Nobels overwhelmingly go to men
  • 2008 story about a scientist being left out of a Nobel Prize in chemistry
  • 2011 story about a scientist who won the Nobel Prize for medicine days after he died of cancer
  • 2019 profile about a former National Science Foundation staffer who received special recognition from a Nobel Prize winner for his research


Greenfieldboyce said that, among scientists, there are many other prestigious prizes, such as the Lasker Awards. "Focusing too much attention on the Nobels might create a misleading impression of who does science these days, and how it gets done," she said.

We agree that the prizes are newsworthy, and more stories about the work being done by Nobel recipients are welcomed. Still, in general, we've found NPR's coverage to be appropriate and adequate. — Amaris Castillo

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A growing immigrant workforce

In North Dakota, the immigrant population is growing — thanks in part to workforce programs meant to address employee shortages. For Morning Edition and an accompanying digital piece, National Desk correspondent Joel Rose reported on what the state and its employers are doing to attract foreign-born workers, and how not everyone is open to it. Rose's reporting took the audience into a workplace where immigrants had just arrived from Ukraine seeking employment, and highlighted tension over refugee resettlement in some parts of the state. The coverage gives audience members a nuanced look at the conversations that happen when local communities must consider workforce and cultural changes. — Emily Barske Wood

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske Wood, and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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