Betsy Mason

2007 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism – News Winner


Californians live in a state of denial.

The 100th anniversary of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake provided a window of opportunity—a time for journalists to remind Bay Area residents of the dangers of the next “Big One.”

We were fortunate to have on our staff a talented journalist who happens to also be a scientist. With calm clarity, Betsy Mason alerted readers to the dangers ahead, shaking us out of our cocoons.

“The 1906 earthquake and ensuing firestorm ranks as one of the worst disasters in U.S. history,” she wrote. “But if the same monster quake struck today’s densely populated Bay Area, the result would be far more devastating.”

The location of the 1906 quake was fortunate; next time could be a lot worse, Betsy explained. Painting a picture of the movement a century ago, she described the 16.5 feet of slip along the San Andreas Fault. It was one of many images this talented writer brought to life with words.

California’s levees are in worse shape than those that failed in New Orleans, she wrote, less than a year after the Louisiana disaster.

“The Delta overlies what geologists call a sedimentary basin, a broad bowl-shaped depression filled in with flat-lying layers of softer rock that shake harder during an earthquake,” she wrote. “To make matters worse, basins can trap seismic waves and send them bouncing back and forth like water sloshing in a bathtub.”

Once again, complex science simplified with stark images. Betsy bridged the gulf between the technical material and the lay reader.

The American Geophysical Union has chosen a tremendous young journalist for the 2007 David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism. We’re lucky to have her on our staff.

—DANIEL BORENSTEIN, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.


It was at the first AGU meeting I attended as a journalist-in-training that I met David Perlman. I had no idea what to expect when I got up the courage to ask him a very basic question about covering the meeting, something along the lines of “How do I do this?” But I didn’t expect the very warm and encouraging response that I got. I will never forget the time he took to sit down in the pressroom with me and answer questions and offer tips and advice.

He probably doesn’t remember the moment, because as I have surmised since then, this is typical behavior for Dave, and he has done the same for dozens of other budding science reporters. Since I joined the ranks of Bay Area science reporters, Dave has continued to be encouraging and has always treated me as a colleague rather than just a competitor. His wonderful career and writing have been an inspiration to me, so it is truly an honor to receive an award bearing his name.

I am also honored to be recognized by AGU, an organization I have felt a kinship with since my days as a geology graduate student at Stanford when I volunteered at the annual meeting in San Francisco to earn my way into that incredibly rich scientific world. As a reporter, I have gained an even greater appreciation for AGU and its power to bring the world’s best Earth scientists together in what amounts to a sumptuous buffet for journalists. I have the AGU Fall Meeting to thank for my first big story, which started as a poster presentation I happened to stumble upon and ended as a cover story for Discover magazine. AGU is certainly among the leading scientific organizations when it comes to communicating science to the public, and I sincerely appreciate the efforts of Harvey Leifert and the public affairs staff, both as a reporter and as a citizen.

I would like to thank Dan Borenstein and Kelly Gust, who edited the stories chosen for this award with a sensitivity to science that isn’t standard issue at local newspapers. Dan in particular was very patient with my stubborn insistence on seemingly small details, such as using mean rather than average, and was always willing, even on deadline, to try to find words or phrasing that we could both agree on.

I would also like to thank the Contra Costa Times for taking a chance on someone with far more science than reporting experience on her resume, and for giving me the rein and support to cover science in a way that doesn’t compromise technical details for the sake of a sexier story. It is rare these days for local newspapers to have staff science reporters, and I am grateful to work for one that values science reporting and puts it on the front page more often than not.

And of course I would like to thank the scientists who take communicating science to the public seriously, and who spared the time at a busy Seismological Society of America meeting to explain their work to me and trusted me to get it right.

—BETSY MASON, Contra Costa Times, Walnut Creek, Calif.