Steven Mufson and Brian Vastag, staff writers for The Washington Post, and The Washington Post Graphics Staff received the David Perlman Award for Excellence in Science Journalism–News at the AGU Fall Meeting Honors Ceremony, held on 5 December 2012 in San Francisco, Calif. Mufson and Vastag were honored for the article “For Virginia’s fault zone, an event of rare magnitude,” published 23 August 2011 (online initially). The article covers the unusual 5.8 magnitude earthquake that shook up the Washington, D.C. region on that day, providing broad and insightful scientific perspective on the event immediately after it occurred . The Post Graphics Staff created an eye-catching, colorful, and informative illustration that accompanied and enhanced the article. The Perlman award is for work published with a deadline pressure of 1 week or less.
When a 5.8 magnitude temblor hit Mineral, Va., on the afternoon of August 23, 2011, many in Washington first thought there had been a terrorist attack ,because earthquakes aren’t supposed to happen here. Unschooled in response to such a geological event, Washingtonians (including many in the Post’s building) spilled out into the streets instead of taking refuge under their desks. But Steven Mufson and Brian Vastag were among those who stayed put in the newsroom, recognizing what was happening and moving quickly, with deadline only a few hours away, to explain the rare occurrence to the Post’s readers.
Others focused on damage and residents’ reactions. Steve and Brian looked at the earthquake itself, clearly and vividly describing for readers what scientists understood about the event. Starting with no warning and working under tight time pressure (not to mention the emotional reaction to having experienced the surprising earthquake themselves), they and the Post’s graphics staff used their wealth of experience and sources to rapidly reach out to an array of experts. In straightforward, accessible terms they described how the layers of rock below the surface had likely moved, and why the shaking was felt far up and down the East Coast. They put the event in the context of California and Japan, earthquake scenarios far more familiar to most readers. They explained differing scientific theories about the causes of seismic activity in the eastern United States. They even foreshadowed what became one of the big ongoing issues, structures at the North Anna nuclear plant shaken beyond the levels for which they were designed, by noting that a shallow earthquake might move the Earth’s surface far more than one of larger magnitude deeper underground.
At the same time, the Post’s graphics staff gathered information about the size and history of earthquakes in the region, producing a rich and compelling news graphic. Their work not only made the story of local earthquakes available to readers at a glance but also provided a wealth of detail about strength, location and timing of previous temblors for those who wanted to learn more. Along with Steve and Brian’s story, it shattered the doesn’t-happen-here illusion and gave readers solid, vivid context for understanding what they had just gone through.
As the Post’s Health, Science and Environment editor at that time, I saw firsthand the pressures Steve, Brian and the graphics staff faced to gather and sift complicated scientific information in the midst of a breaking story that day. Their clear and compelling work displayed the strengths they’ve built in distinguished careers of presenting complex issues to a general audience. They used the moment of intense interest created by the earthquake to make geology and plate tectonics accessible to the ordinary reader, and they did it within hours without sacrificing accuracy or sophistication. Their work is a perfect example of the journalism the David Perlman award aims to recognize. Thanks to the AGU for this honor, and congratulations to Steve and Brian.
–Claudia Townsend,Washington Post, Washington, D. C.
When the Washington Post’s fifth floor newsroom began to sway one slow afternoon last August, my colleague Joel Achenbach barked, “That’s an earthquake.” It was good to put a name on this strange movement; I had never felt anything like it. The building swayed, then shook. One reporter ducked under his desk and I started to do the same. Before I could scoot my rear end to safety though, the shaking stopped and the building settled. The great East Coast quake was over.
But our work was just beginning. Editors began giving orders. Steve Mufson, our energy reporter, quickly discovered the quake was centered just a few miles from a nuclear power plant, a revelation that triggered obvious safety questions. My job was straightforward: Call seismologists and figure out what happenstance of geology had just befallen us.
During the next frantic hours, I leaned on the scientists and website of the U.S. Geologic Survey. Their “shake maps” soon registered dots from Quebec to Georgia. This quake had indeed been felt over a huge area.
That such a large quake could strike the East Coast surprised me. But I soon understand that central Virginia has seen similar quakes in the past. Geologists explained that the old, cold bedrock of the East Coast transmits energy further than the warmer, younger bedrock on the West Coast. Geologists detailed other differences between East Coast quakes and the more familiar West Coast quakes in terms our readers could understand.
Within a few hours, our crack graphics staff had pulled historical USGS data into a map showing readers that, whether they knew it or not, Washington sat at the edge of an active midplate quake zone. With a big red circle representing the day’s action, and smaller, fainter circles showing other quakes, the graphic quickly told readers that this event was, indeed, a big one.
Meanwhile, Mufson learned that the Lake Anna nuclear plant had automatically shut down when the power grid went offline, a situation that recalled the first hours of the Fukushima disaster in Japan. Thankfully, no tsunami arrived and the plant’s back-up generators kept the reactors cool. But Mufson’s quick reporting foreshadowed the later revelation that the reactors had absorbed larger shocks than they had been designed for.
As afternoon bled into evening, and as editors frantically managed page space, my reporting on the science of the quake was merged with Mufson’s story. Deft editing by health and science editor, Claudia Townsend, and business editor, Greg Schneider, stitched our stories into a seamless “explainer,” telling readers how and why the Earth had moved this day.
The reporter’s recipe for success always lies with his or her sources. Mufson and I talked with a dozen or more experts in the hours after the quake, and it is these scientists who were the heroes of the day. Without them, we’d still be wondering what happened.
–Steven Mufson, Brian Vastag, and Washington Post Graphics Staff, Washington Post, Washington, D. C.