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A Pulitzer for not being blinded by science

One of the more unusual characters that Boston Globe science reporter Gareth Cook encountered while reporting on stem-cell research was Dr. Alexander Smikodub. The founder of a clinic in the Ukraine, Smikodub had told an American couple that a treatment he’d developed could slow the progress of their son’s muscular dystrophy. Cook recalls showing up at Smikodub’s clinic with a translator. The building looked abandoned, rusted-out. Someone rolled past with a dead body, covered only with a sheet. "That was one of the strangest experiences, going to Kiev," Cook recalls.

Inside, Cook discovered something even more interesting: a moral and ethical paradox. "In the course of my reporting, it became very clear to me that he wasn’t helping people, and he was charging people a lot of money," Cook says. "But he believes in what he’s doing. I found that just fascinating."

This past Monday, Cook, 35, won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting for his year-long series on embryonic-stem-cell research. It was his first Pulitzer, and the second for the Globe since Martin Baron became editor of the paper in 2001. (The Globe won the Pulitzer for public service in 2003, for its coverage of the pedophile-priest scandal in the Catholic Church.) Cook — who was the Boston Phoenix’s news editor from 1996 to 1999 — and New York Times reporter Walt Bogdanich, who won for national reporting, were honored in a full-page ad in both the Globe and the Times sponsored by the two papers’ corporate parent, the New York Times Company.

"I think Gareth is particularly good at navigating an issue that’s got thorny ethical implications that many writers just sort of mention in passing," says Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director of the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University. "Gareth wrestles with these issues, and you can see it in his work. And that’s what I think distinguishes him."

For Marty Baron, having a science reporter win a Pulitzer was especially meaningful given Boston’s status as a center of scientific research. "We’ve said for years — our publisher [Richard Gilman] has said, I’ve said — that we want to excel where Boston excels," Baron says. "And we’ve devoted considerable resources to improving in that area." The aim of any newspaper committed to "distinctive journalism," he adds, is "to write these stories in a way that does what Gareth did, which is to dig deeply, show humanity in their writing, explain things clearly — all of that."

Cook credits his editors with giving him the time he needed to pursue the story even when it wasn’t clear that there was a story to pursue — a luxury that has become increasingly rare in the news business. "That represents a tremendous investment for a newspaper at a time when the economics are very difficult," he says. "This is literally why I got into journalism."

Issue Date: April 8 -14, 2005
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