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March 15, 2012 / djasudasen

If only words could help

The Pulitzer Prize is arguably the most prestigious award for journalism. Every year thousands of entrants battle for recognition of their work in one (or more) of 14 categories.

Explanatory Reporting is one such category and looks for “a distinguished example of explanatory reporting that illuminates a significant and complex subject, demonstrating mastery of the subject, lucid writing and clear presentation.”

Last year, the honour was given to a team from the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, and boy was their submission all of the above.

The writers, Mark Johnson and Kathleen Gallagher draw the reader in immediately by descriptively setting the scene (down to what his children are doing) as a doctor composes an email that may change the life of Nicholas Volker,  a 4-year-old boy suffering from – to take the title of the article – “a baffling illness”.

This continues throughout the passage allowing you to personally relate to and connect with the characters whose lives have been touched by Nicholas and his battle to overcome genetic disorder never seen before in medical literature.

This is especially so with Nicholas’ mother. We are given insights into Amylynne’s personality through extracts from her blog and descriptions of the people around her:

“Amylynne likes Kugathasan for his gentleness. She forms a particular bond with Marjorie Arca, the pediatric surgeon who examines Nicholas’ large intestine. Arca fell in love with pediatrics years ago…”

You may have noticed the use of present tense in the citation. It is less common to see articles written in the present tense as it can provide challenges for the writer when describing events that have already taken place.

The authors have expertly used the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy, which leaves you feeling as though you are experiencing the events, in real time.

Johnson and Gallagher give a succinct but powerful summary of genetics and the impact discovering the structure of DNA, decoding its secrets and sequencing the Human genome continues to have on our lives and those of future generations.

The ease at which they explain the milestones in genetic research without jargon makes you forget they are just journalists. They certainly are not just journalists.

The explanatory reporting finalists are also judged on their use of multimedia to aid their presentation of the subject. Having worked with some talented photojournalists in the past, I was a little less convinced with the supporting images. They are very candid images that look as though you or I could have taken them. Perhaps that was what they were looking for.

Nevertheless, the story left me searching through the Internet to find out the latest on Nicholas Volker. I can’t help but wish that the prize for explanatory reporting would help the doctors explain the disorder.


Johnson, M. & Gallagher, K. (2010, Dec 19). A baffling illness



Leave a Comment
  1. kflint93 / Mar 16 2012 9:48 am

    I really enjoyed this post; it seems you were quite touched by the story and I don’t blame you.

    By starting off with background information on the Pulitzer Prizes proves some research into the matter was conducted, which is really nice to see.

    Despite a lot of your analysis being about the technical aspects of the writing, you still managed to convey how emotional and endearing the article was. The quote you chose really endorses this, displaying some of the personal impacts of the poor boys disease.

    The only point I disagreed with was your comment on the picture – I thought it gave insight into the hopeful nature of everyone involved and also how much they care.

  2. michaelpetersen1 / Mar 18 2012 2:41 am

    Hi djasudasen

    Your post really articulated what i felt after reading this article, I agree that the use of rich descriptions and that the use of present tense gives a feeling of immediacy, and makes this an award winning article.

    The explanations however were not limited to the explanation of the science it also explained the effects of the disease on those around Nicholas and the emotional toll it has on both Nicholas and those around him family, doctors etc. Which you explained well by metioning the quote by Nicholas’ mother which as you mention it lets us connect better with the people in the article.

    Like you i also found myself clicking to read what happened to Nicholas, demonstrating that powerful journalism makes us want to find out more.

  3. ashfonty / Mar 18 2012 9:01 am

    After reading your post I couldn’t help but go onto read the article.

    I agree that it is a very emotive piece. I immediately feel for Nicholas and his family who refuse to give up despite the ‘lack of a cure’. In this day and age it is hard to believe that here are things out there that are yet to be cured let alone diagnosed! But maybe that shows my ignorance towards human biology/health.

    I have to agree with kflint93 that the photos are great! It looks like he is living as normal a life as possible with everything he has going on. It is very confronting to see such a small child with a colostomy bag, yet they make it look like such a normal part of their lives.

    Something I found quite interesting at the start of the article relates to the idea of getting funding for hypothesis generating experiments (as opposed to a hypothesis driven experiment):

    “I am writing to ask if there is some way we can get his genome sequenced,” he tells Jacob. “There is a good chance Nicholas has a genetic defect, and it is likely to be a new disease. Furthermore, a diagnosis soon could save his life and truly showcase personalized genomic medicine.”

    I recently read a website which discussed how hard it is to get funding to collect data on peoples genomes due to the shear size of the data that would be collected. The technology is quite new, however because there often isn’t a hypothesis as to why we should collect information on someone’s genetic information/what would come of it, people don’t want to sink money into it! If anyone is interested the link is:

    I think Nicholas’ case would be a justifiable reason to do so. I too am left wondering how he got along & what happened.

  4. kellyfitzsimons1 / Mar 19 2012 12:15 pm

    I would first like to start by congratulating djasudasen on a blog that covers so many aspects of the journal from the imaging to the use of present tense in citations.

    Like ashfonty and others who have commented on this blog I thought that most of the images were great. With the exception of the first image, the images portrayed a sense of what it is like living in Nicholas’s world. They appeared not staged or posed for, and that is exactly how I like it for this particular journal. It gave a sense of intimacy, as if I was part of the storyline which allowed me to connect with the people in the article, leaving me feeling shocked and heartbroken when I finally finished reading it. In my eyes, seeing a small 4 year old boy wearing a colostomy bag is something that I find particularly hard to accept- 4 year old boys are meant to be out discovering the world, playing with their toy trucks ect. But I would be interested in knowing how other people responded to the images?

    Your choice of structuring for this blog was great. You introduced the Pulitzer Prize simply but still managed to convey how prestigious it is.

    I particularly liked your analysis on the use of present tense:
    “The authors have expertly used the present tense to convey a sense of immediacy, which leaves you feeling as though you are experiencing the events, in real time.”

    I think everyone can agree that the journal article definitely created a sense of immediacy and left you feeling like we were experiencing the events.

  5. bonnyp / Mar 19 2012 2:42 pm

    Hey there

    This is a great post, you offered a very comprehensive analysis of the article.

    I also liked the way the story gave a brief history of genetic sequencing and the use of present tense that you mentioned gave the story a sense of chronology. It also helped to give an insight into the personal aspect of Nicholas’ disease and how it affected his family, as well as the motivations of the doctors who were treating him.

    Personally, I liked the photos used in the article, even though they look somewhat amateurish. I thought they gave a really human element to the article, and the juxtaposition of images of childhood (toys, dress up costumes, a school classroom) with images of sickness (the colostomy bag, the doctors, the hospital setting) was really powerful.

    Like yourself, I found the story really emotive (especially with the journal entries that you discussed) and wanted to find out more about what happened to Nicholas Volker after reading the article.

  6. osullivankate / Mar 19 2012 3:59 pm

    Hi Diana

    I read the article before reading your post, just to see what I felt before taking a look at your insights. In general I agree with you (and the other commenters) – but the one thing I struggled with was the use of present tense. I think it did create an emotive tone, but I struggled to appreciate the jump between different points of view due to the tense not allowing for “so-and-so said this”.

    I will say though – the journalists certainly aren’t just journalists. They did paint a picture for us all.

  7. djasudasen / Mar 21 2012 6:57 am

    Thanks for your comments and I’m glad you liked the article as much as I did.

    With regards to the photos, I don’t disagree that they convey a human element to the article as Bonny mentioned – what I question is whether or not the images were worthy of such a prestigious prize (the Photojournalist won the award as well). Whilst they added value to the feature, I would have liked to have seen some more sophisticated photography techniques. I am by no means qualified to comment on photography techniques, my views are simply a laypersons opinion on the feelings the images induced when I read the article.

    Nevertheless, I think Explanatory Reporting is a fascinating category and I am looking forward to reading this years winning articles when they are announced next month!

  8. chantellerichards / Mar 22 2012 3:14 am

    What a truly touching article that was. Your post in response was equally very well written.

    I am in agreement with you in regards to the opening paragraph. The strong imagery portrayed to the reader is able to connect them on an emotional level to the doctor, and Nicholas and his family. I know personally that a chill was sent up my spine when the writers said “…the chance to take the first steps into the future of medicine and maybe save the life of a very sick little boy”. I am so passionate in the field of medical advancement but I do feel that anybody would appreciate this.

    As mentioned by others, I do like the ‘personal’ photographs that have been included in the article. I feel that this family has really opened up to their audience in what would have been (and still be) such a demanding task to share an experience so emotionally painful. In particular, the photograph with Nicholas wearing his colostomy bag whilst waiting to be attached to his IV unit, I feel, is a confronting image for an individual to see, especially for those with children of their own.

    The use of present tense throughout the article allows the readers to involve themself within the experiences and feelings of the family and the medical team, which forms a sense of immediacy to the situation.

    This article is has illustrated a truly inspirational story of a young boy, who, despite his “baffling illness”, sings “a little bit longer and I’ll be fine” on the operating table. I can only wish that I had that kind of optimism.

  9. rhiandyer / Mar 23 2012 1:55 am

    I think the depth of information gave this article a really personal feel as well.

    The authors seemlessly integrate technical details of this rare disease and some molecular basics into the context of a brief history of molecular discovery.

    They use a in-depth human-interest story to really convey the avant-garde of healthcare; Personalised diagnostics and treatment are looking closer that ever.

    The theme of personalised medicine is perfectly complimented by the use of the present tense. It
    makes you feel like you are going on a journey with each of the ‘characters’.

    Like everyone else here I found myself spending over an hour clicking on the next button and reading all the subsequent articles, and all the amazing diagrams. I have heard for many years about the personalised approach that will inevitably come with cancer treatment, but did not think we were anywhere close in a clinical setting.

  10. keikok / Mar 23 2012 2:50 am

    What a big topic you mentioned.
    The Pulitzer Prize is one of the prizes I check annually since it has such a great science impact to the world. I visited the website of Nicholas Volker and saw couple of videos of him. As you mentioned, it is such an emotional story. Since I am not a doctor or geneticist, I cannot help to cure him. However, as a science communicator, we can broad this message to all over the world that might help him.
    The 2011 Pulitzer Prize winners were Carol Guzy, Nikki Kahn and Ricky Carioti and one of the photos I really got shock is called “Tiny Victim”
    The Pulitzer Prize all ways give us the impact and makes us to do something. However, we cannot really do something by ourselves…. What do you think we can do as science communicators?

    Great post djasudasen!!
    It would be even better if you had a picture on your blog post as well as the link to the web sites 🙂

  11. lacuwa09 / Mar 23 2012 7:10 am

    Wow. This is quite a powerful article. It really does draw you in and portrays a scientific issue with effective and creative writing. I agree with your praise on the journalists ability to describe a complex topic (genome!!) in a succinct and jargon-free manner. In concern to the photographs, although I personally feel they may not be too incredible structurally, they really were effective in contributing to the intimate feel of the article. ‘Candid’ was a great term for them.

    I also felt that your analysis was very strong. It covered many aspects of the article and effectively outlined its strong qualities. I can definitely see why it would have won such a prestigious award.
    I also felt like your title was creative and that everything flowed very nicely. I liked the way you used direct quotes as references.
    Thanks for drawing my attention to this category, I am also looking forward to seeing the winner for this year.:)

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