An investigative series co-authored by a Philip Merrill College of Journalism professor and an alumna has won a national science journalism award.
“The Uncounted” — by associate professor of investigative journalism Deborah Nelson, Reuters health care reporter Yasmeen Abutaleb (Merrill College ‘14) and Reuters reporter Ryan McNeill — won gold this week in the AAAS Kavli Science Journalism Awards.
The five-part series exposed government agencies’ failure to track the tens of thousands of deaths caused each year by antibiotic-resistant infections — so-called superbugs. The lack of such data cripples public health agencies’ ability to prevent, detect and respond to superbugs.
Warren Leary is a former New York Times science writer who helped judge the contest. In announcing the award, he said the series “broke new ground on a major health issue threatening the country.”
Nelson, a Pulitzer Prize winner, said she “was thrilled to have a chance to work with one of our own grads on an investigative project” outside of the classroom. Nelson’s students have produced award-winning stories on human trafficking, rising seas, the working poor and other topics as part of her investigative journalism course at Merrill College.
Abutaleb double-majored in journalism and microbiology at the University of Maryland. Already interested in science, she discovered a passion for reporting when she joined the staff of The Diamondback her freshman year.
By the end of her sophomore year, Abutaleb was the newspaper’s editor in chief.
She decided to combine her interests. That paid off in 2015, when Reuters editors assigned her to join Nelson in investigating infection-related deaths in hospitals.
“Her combined journalism and science background gave us a huge leg-up,” Nelson said.
Abutaleb said it was her “first big project,” and she was grateful to have Nelson as a guide.
“There were parts where I would get stuck and called Deb to pick her brain,” Abutaleb said. “She was kind of like my teacher through this whole project.”
Abutaleb said she was proud of the entire series, but especially Part 1 — “it laid out the scope of this massive problem,” she said — and Part 2, which she called the “most challenging reporting and writing experience I’ve had.”
In Part 2, the Reuters team tells the story of a man who contracted multiple drug-resistant infections while recovering from transplant surgery. The man died.
In reporting that story, Nelson said Abutaleb showed “an amazing ability to get people to open up and to trust her with some of their most painful memories.”
“Through many patient and sensitive interviews over many months, Yasmeen produced a powerful narrative about the human and financial cost of these infections,” Nelson said.
By the time the series published, Abutaleb had found a new interest: investigative journalism.
“It’s a different level of fulfillment when you do something like this,” she said.