Diane C. Tennant

2002 Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–Features Winner

Diane Casto Tennant was awarded the Walter Sullivan Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – Features at the AGU Spring Meeting Honors Ceremony, which was held on 29 May 2002, in Washington, D.C. The award recognizes reporting generally produced with deadlines of longer than one week.

Citation

“Before I started working with Diane Tennant, I would spot her across the newsroom and here’s what I saw: a tiny woman, not too tall and very skinny, wrapped in a shawl that she obviously ripped off from someone’s grandmother. She looked as though a stiff wind could knock her off her feet.

“First impressions can be so wrong.

“Underneath that shawl was our newsroom’s greatest radical. A woman who once wrote a story in a single sentence, who penned a Christmas card for our front page, who told an old couple’s love story through a timeline of history.

“Diane Tennant also is one of the most graceful and powerful writers on the planet. Really, she’s a giant. A fearless giant.

“Most reporters wouldn’t have attempted to tell the story of a stray meteor and the unseen crater it created and the ramifications of an event that happened 35 million years ago. It’s old news, after all. No one died. No pictures.

“But Diane saw possibilities, and then she found a story. A story about a scientist who waves his arms a lot and stays up late contemplating why things just don’t add up and how because of his perseverance, things did. She found a story about determination and how it can pay off. A story that’s universal, or should I say cosmic. She found that story because that’s what she does. She’s a feature writer who lately has been intrigued by the idea of writing about science. And she couldn’t imagine a more fascinating tale than a meteor hurtling through space, smashing into the Earth, and wreaking havoc then and now. One of Diane’s colleagues asked her, when she was first beginning her research, why anybody, any average, Budweiser-drinking Joe Blow, would be interested in such a long-ago event. She pondered the question and came back with an answer the next day: ‘Groundwater,’ she said.

“Diane took it as a challenge not only to tell the story of David Powars and his work for the U.S. Geological Society, but also to teach our readers about what was quite literally under their feet. She was determined to make them understand the lingering effects of the meteor and how it had reshaped the Chesapeake Bay. She was determined to make them care, even about a topic as dry as groundwater.

“She succeeded, I believe, by illustrating science in ways that were easy to grasp and by writing in typical fashion—with clarity, with style, and with authority.

“‘The sea, steaming and barren, flowed back over the crater,’ Diane wrote in describing the after-effect of the meteor’s impact. ‘Earthquakes rumbled under water as house-sized rocks slumped down the crater’s sides. The ripples faded, and there was no one to remember that the impact had happened at all. No one would ever know. Not until 35 million years had passed, and David Powars dug a hole.’

“I thank the AGU for recognizing Diane. It’s an affirmation of the kind of work that she is so admired for by her colleagues and her boss.

“By the way, she doesn’t wear the shawl anymore.”

—MARIA CARILLO, Narrative Editor, The Virginian-Pilot, Norfolk, Va.

Response

“Perception, really, is everything.

“I perceive myself as petite and slender, with a bohemian flair in fashion. And I wore the shawl on Easter Sunday.

“But where Maria and I agree is on the perception that a giant, Earth-bound meteor, a fiery tidal wave of destruction and an excitable scientist would make for a great story.

“The U.S. Geological Survey could not have been kinder or its personnel more helpful. David Powars, Greg Gohn, Jean Self-Trail, Lucy Edwards, the drilling crew—not once did they become impatient with my questions, my peering over their shoulders, my persistence in just showing up at the drill site day after day.

“Scott Bruce from the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, Scott Emry from the Hampton Roads Planning District Commission, Gerald Johnson from the College of William and Mary, Joel Levine from NASA Langley—all were patient, kind, and generous in sharing their expertise. I thank them and the many other USGS folks who helped me understand the incredible impact of 35 million years ago and the effects that still linger today.

“My thanks to the American Geophysical Union for selecting my story for this award.

It is quite an honor to be in the company of John McPhee, Jon Krakauer, and the other previous winners.

“And to my editors at The Virginian-Pilot, thanks for trusting me enough to give me several months to research and seven days of newsprint to tell the story of the Chesapeake Bay Impact Crater.

“The trick, I learned, was to tell them I was writing eight stories. When the series came in at only seven, it looked a lot shorter to them.

“Perception, as I said before, is everything.”

—DIANE CASTO TENNANT, The Virginian-Pilot