Journalism Award in Spain: EL PAÍS visual report on the spread of coronavirus by aerosols wins the Kavli Science Award, the “Pulitzer” of science journalism | Science and technology


The most visited content in the history of the EL PAÍS website, a multimedia special titled “A room, a bar and a classroom: how the coronavirus spreads in the air”, won another prestigious award: the international science journalism AAAS Kavli Awards, considered the Pulitzer of science journalism. The feature article has already won one of Spain’s Ortega y Gasset awards and the Malofiej award, the latter being considered the most relevant for infographics. The Kavli Prize, meanwhile, is awarded by the publishing association of the prestigious Science magazine.

This recognition is part of the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS) Science Journalism Awards program, awarded since 1945 to American media. From 2009, the awards have opened up to the rest of the world, since the Kavli Foundation started funding them, and this is the first time that a Spanish publication has won the award: more precisely, the Gold Award in the Science Reporting category. – Great outing.

The jury appreciated the feature article for “examining the risks of the SARS-CoV-2 virus that causes COVID-19 at a time when understanding of the aerosol spread of the disease was still in development.”

“The story had a huge impact,” said Judge Laura Helmuth, editor-in-chief of Scientific American. “It circulated on social media faster and more contagiously than SARS-CoV-2 in a stuffy classroom. People who were too confused, scared, or angry to understand other stories saw this one and… understood it. It is one of the most effective pieces of journalism I have ever seen.

Its authors, the editor-in-chief of Visual Narratives at EL PAÍS, Mariano Zafra, and the journalist of the scientific section of the newspaper Materia, Javier Salas, could not be more proud – not only for the recognition, but also for the recognition of impact. The article has been viewed over 20 million times, has been translated from Spanish into six different languages, and crossed borders thanks to its concise and visual way of explaining how the coronavirus is transmitted through aerosols. Understanding how the virus behaves in different scenarios has been an antidote for many people and the best example of how good information can save lives.

The story of the article dates back to October 2020, one of the most difficult times in the coronavirus pandemic. Misinformation, noise and fake news were part of everyday life, and a newspaper can only remedy this with rigorous reporting. According to the director of the Materia section, Patricia Fernández de Lis, the pandemic was probably the most complicated period of her entire professional career. Science journalism has always been important in explaining reality, but at times like these it becomes even more important.

Mariano Zafra felt at the time that there was something that was not fully understood. How to explain the spread of aerosols in a visual format? The publication of a column by scientist José Luis Jiménez, professor of chemistry at the University of Colorado, gave him the idea. “As I read it, I imagined what to do. The only thing missing were the parameters, the data on which to build these scenarios. What is the size of the aerosols, how long is needed for an infection, how many contagious aerosols a person emits when speaking or shouting, etc. The column said scientists had developed a model. And I used this model.

Zafra began to work there with Javier Salas and with Jiménez by videoconference in order to achieve the required scientific precision. They established the three scenarios of the article in a simple and easy to understand way: a room, a bar and a classroom, three common places for any citizen.

“I am very proud to have them award us with such relevance in the scientific field,” explains Zafra, who two years ago created the New Stories section of EL PAÍS. “This means that the working model that we are developing in the journal works very well, for a visual journalist to team up with a science journalist and work together. “

Meanwhile, Javier Salas explains that he had been working on similar issues with Zafra for some time and that in a way they switched roles. “Mariano became a science journalist thanks to everything he researched and read,” he explains. “I was responsible for organizing the visual information and narrative coherence. The most relevant thing in the success of this story is teamwork. We worked on it for two intense weeks, thanks to the efforts of our colleagues, and the work of the Video and Social Networks teams was decisive, the latter distributing the work in an orderly and rapid manner. We hit all the right things, because for a few months the machinery between Materia and Visual Narratives was well greased and worked very well.

They quickly saw the impact of the special function. Salas explains that not a single week has passed without an institution or media writing to him asking for permission to use and share it. As such, EL PAÍS made it available to all media, allowing its publication and adaptation on any website.

It became clear that the article had crossed the pond when it was shared by NBA basketball player Manu Ginobili. Newspapers such as The Guardian referenced the story, it was shared on Twitter by then Science Minister Pedro Duque, and even the Spanish satirical site El Mundo Today produced a falsified version.

For the director of Materia, Patricia Fernández de Lis, the prize is only proof, in a way, of the triumph of science and the importance of science journalism. “It’s confirmation that we are doing relevant and quality work,” she says. “This work in particular is very important because it points to a route where classical journalism and visual narratives can meet.”

Treating science journalism in the simplest and most understandable way is something that has characterized the scientific section of EL PAÍS since its inception, but for Fernández de Lis, relying on a team like that of New Narratives completely changes the way of doing collaborate between sections. “Visual storytelling means an explosion of new possibilities and it’s perfect for science journalism, for explaining how things go. Science journalism has often been confined to media corners, supplements, or parallel sections, but this pandemic, as with the La Palma volcano, confirms that in reality science is an essential part of reality and as such science journalism should also be an essential part of a journal.

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