By Mike Smollins
Amy Harmon, a 2008 Pulitzer Prize winner from The New York Times, presented her work to a full crowd of students and faculty in the Islip Arts Theatre on Wednesday, April 22.
The special ceremony started off when English professor Molly Altizer-Evans stepped up to the podium. “This is the second annual Pulitzer Prize series,” Evans said before giving a background on Harmon. Harmon then took the stage and began to speak to the audience.
Harmon covers genetic impact and she won the Pulitzer for expository reporting for her series entitled “The DNA Age.” Harmon started as a reporter for the LA Times from 1990-97. She started as a feature writer for science and health covering topics about adult offspring.
In 1997, she came to the New York Times and just 4 years later in 2001, she won the Pulitzer Prize for national reporting. While Harmon has been very successful, she knows that the readership of newspapers has gone down in recent years. “This is a time when the work I love to do is in peril,” Harmon said.
Despite the decline in readership in newspapers nowadays, the New York Times is up for five Pulitzer Prizes in 2009. Due to the papers going out of business, Harmon mentioned that her colleagues have turned to regular blogging as well as live blogging. While the readership goes down, Harmon still believes in what she does. “Long form national journalism deserves a place in our society,” Harmon insisted.
Harmon went to the University of Michigan and became an editorial editor. E-Mail was a new technology back then and she learned how to do that while also free lancing. She interviewed at the LA Times and ended up working in the Detroit borough writing about the internet, a new commodity back in 1997.
Harmon writes for the Science Times section every Tuesday in the New York Times. She writes about the social impact of science and technology. Harmon had a child and was offered DNA tests, which really sparked her interests in her field.
One story Harmon wrote was on a 23-year-old woman named Katie who was at risk for a disease called Huntington’s Disease and had a 50% risk of getting the disease if her mom had it. Unfortunately, her mom didn’t want to be tested, and Harmon spent time with them as the story unfolded.
Another story was about a young woman who inherited a chance of breast cancer from her mother. Deborah Linder, 33 years old, or “Deb” as Harmon referred to as, had an 87% chance of inheriting the cancer from her mother. She never had the cancer, but opted for an operation to remove her breasts without ever being certain. The operation was called a prophylactic mastectomy.
Deb’s surgery was a success, and Harmon reported her recovery in what was an amazing story. Harmon wanted to write a story about heredity but didn’t quite know in which direction she wanted to go with it
“I interviewed a dozen families before finding Deb,” Harmon said revealing the amount of research that goes into this sort of journalism. Harmon also added that her field has changed so much that she is not just a reporter, but also must be a photographer and videographer. “Our genre is about showing stories through multiple technologies,” Harmon added.
Harmon was supposed to visit the College on March 25, however due to a story she was reporting, she had to cancel and reschedule it. Harmon is working on a story with a man who has ALS, more commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease. There has been some improvement in the search for a cure as there is now a pill that can potentially help people live longer. Harmon had to cancel her first visit to see the man take the pill for the first time. It was the culmination of a family’s quest to get him the drug. The story is still in progress.
“I like to write stories that aren’t news or typical trend stories,” Harmon said, “I love to write narrative stories that unfold with one character or a few characters,” she added. One of those stories includes a story about two siblings who found out their father was a sperm donor, and not the man who raised them. The story unfolded with the siblings meeting their real father for the first time.
Due to being so close to the people and stories she covers for so long, Harmon can’t help but sometimes get wrapped up in it all. “I feel myself getting emotionally involved in my stories,” Harmon said, “but I feel that’s okay.”
Harmon isn’t the traditional journalist. She actually reads her stories back to the people she reported them on afterwards to make sure everything is accurate before printing. Harmon does stories that she’s personally interested in and some people actually write to her for her to do stories on them.
Harmon mentioned that a company called 23 and Me tests people’s DNA for any risk of diseases that may be hereditary for $400. The company runs many tests to help people discover their risks. Harmon originally trained to be a reporter, but she is now trained in audio reporting and has a video team. “The more you know the better,” Harmon said. “The more technologies you have, the more it helps you tell a story in different ways.”
Harmon didn’t study science in school, so she interviews scientists about the scientific parts of her research. “One of the worst things I do is take up a lot of scientists’ time, but don’t quote them. I spend hours with scientists trying to understand the science factors behind the social issues,” Harmon said mentioning that she always e-mails them to let them know if she doesn’t end up quoting them.
In Florida, Harmon sat in on a class learning the topic of evolution for the first time ever and she saw conversations sparked for the very first time as the kids first heard of evolution. It was never taught in Florida prior to that.
Harmon said that she spends so much time researching and writing the stories. The story with Deb took three months for her to complete. Harmon is proud of her work and glad that the decline in readership doesn’t affect the Pulitzer Prize winning journalist, “I’ll have people come up to me and say ‘I started reading the story and I didn’t think I’d read it to the end, but I did.’” For Harmon, that alone makes all the research and effort worth it.