Healthy Journalism

Friday, June 20, 2014

A shout out to my mentors

The Physical World: Discovered by a wall of men, memorialized
 in the foyer at MIT's Building 6.  Surrounded by women during
Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing.
Ever since last weekend’s Solutions Summit 2014: Women in Science Writing conference, I’ve been thinking about people who gave me a boost during the decades I spent covering science, health and medicine.

“Anyone who has gotten to a certain level of success has been helped multiple times formally or informally,” panelist Laura Helmuth said during a plenary session on mentoring. Helmuth is the science and health editor of Slate magazine and serves on the board of the National Association of Science Writers, which paid for the women in science writing conference at MIT.

Although the idea of veterans helping less established journalists was universally hailed as a good thing, two caveats surfaced again and again: Participants were urged to seek female mentors (to reduce sexual complications) and advised not to become friends with their mentors (unclear to me why).

Fortunately, nobody gave me this advice when I was a grasshopper.

As a result, I went out to dinner with Ben Patrusky decades ago, on break from a giant medical meeting in Miami, and learned that far from being alone and uniquely incompetent, I was typical. Every science writer worries about getting the facts wrong, Ben told me, and we all get anxious when we start a new story. Every time.

Welcome to science writing: a profession filled with people who oscillate between hubris and imposter syndrome.

Ben was the first of several men who’ve been wonderful mentors, sponsors and – wait for it – friends during my working life. DonGibbons, Victor McElheny, H. R. Shepherd and Dr. William Ira Bennett are some of the others. (A sponsor, I learned at the conference, is a highly placed person in your organization who helps you get a promotion. As opposed to a mentor, who offers mostly advice.)

Some of my mentors are older than me, some younger. Summit speakers emphasized that age is irrelevant and what matters is listening, then knowing what to say and when.

My first and most important mentor was a woman. Willa Shovar, my ninth-grade homeroom teacher, took an interest in me because I was 13 years old and reading a battered paperback copy of The Tin Drum.  As soon as I graduated from high school, she announced that I had to stop calling her “Mrs. Shovar,” and that we could now become friends. She gave me the chutzpa to become a writer.

Fast forward to the AIDS catastrophe, when I met Ann Giudici Fettner in the pressroom at the first International Conference on AIDS. Fearless and profane, she wrote smuggled vials of blood from Africa to U.S. labs and wrote scientifically brilliant coverage for the Village Voice and The New York Native. Much later, she emboldened me to write my own book about the search for an HIV vaccine.  

A few years after Ann and I met, my AIDS reporting helped me win a Knight Science Journalism Fellowship at MIT. Once in New England, I began traveling to Bar Harbor, Maine, every July for the mouse and human geneticscourse run by Johns Hopkins and the Jackson Laboratory. There I met BarbaraCulliton and Joanne Rodgers, who told me we were sitting at the smart table.

Not knowing any better, I became friends with most of these folks. Time and distance have taken a toll, as has death. Every one of these people has enriched my career and made my life better.

Good mentors are hard to find. I hope younger women in science writing won’t go through life afraid that every male is a sexual predator.  Some are, most are not.

And I hope up-and-coming women science writers won’t be wary of friendship, which is much less abundant than it appears.

During the conference session on mentoring,  scientist and Wired blogger Gwen Pearson eloquently described a mentor as a door opener, “someone who takes things unknown and secret and reveals them to you.”

Who doesn’t need that?

So do good work, fight back when you’re dissed and take an interest in other people. Open a door whenever you can, and thank people who open one for you.

For excellent summaries of the conference, see Maryn McKenna's Storify and Cris Russell's CJR story

For data about women in science writing presented at the summit, click here. 

Saturday, May 24, 2014

Cliff Baile: Obesity Initiative loses its ringmaster

It is a truth rarely acknowledged, that most university faculty members don’t know what their colleagues do, nor are they motivated to find out.

This is what Clifton A. “Cliff” Baile was up against when he set out to organize the University of Georgia’s Obesity Initiative in the summer of 2011. The plan involved mobilizing hundreds of researchers in dozens of departments, spread out across the enormous Athens campus, to combat soaring obesity rates in Georgia.

Many of these researchers, teachers and community outreach experts had never met.  All were busy with their own work. If asked, most would have said they could not possibly join another committee or take on anything new.

But Cliff, already a successful scholar, corporate leader and entrepreneur  -- decked out with as many academic honorifics as a four-star general has medals and ribbons – was a hard man to turn down.

Cliff had a lot of ringmaster presence: tall, with well-barbered white hair, a deep voice, and a mischievous twinkle in his eye.  I never saw him in a top hat and tails, but he could have carried it off.

Like any good impresario, he knew how to do his homework. Minutes into our first conversation, Cliff had discovered who we both knew in Boston – though our years there did not overlap. He also understood that people learn most of what they know about health, including nutrition and physical activity, from the media. He saw news organizations, such as Georgia Health News, as potential friends of the scientific enterprise. He knew reporters were not the enemy.

I direct a health and medical journalism graduate program at UGA, and students do hands-on reporting in Georgia. They were already generating considerable coverage of obesity’s impact on individuals, communities and the economy. If what Cliff proposed became a reality, and UGA threw its resources at this growing problem, there would be even more stories to tell.

Of course I said “yes” to Cliff and signed up with the Obesity Initiative. Since 2012 I’ve participated in teams focused on maternal and childhood obesity, community health and persuasive communication.

All told, the Obesity Initiative now has 130 UGA faculty working together in 14 teams. These teams work on grants, experiments and interventions dealing with virtual reality, the basic science of metabolism and genetics, clinical research on diet and physical activity, community walking programs and more.

When these groups convene, in conference rooms scattered across the campus, Cliff and his program manager, Diane Hartzell, were almost always there. If it was lunchtime, they brought pizza and fresh fruit. If the conversation wandered, Cliff guided it back on track. If spirits flagged because a grant proposal was turned down, Cliff got people fired up to try again.

These are the most diverse groups of teachers, researchers and extension experts that I’ve found on this campus or any other.

My guess is that Cliff recruited all these folks the same way he did me: by taking a genuine interest in them, both professionally and personally, and making them want to run away and join his circus.

It was a gift he had, even without the top hat.

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

I'm with the band, part 1

Our fall tour schedule was nothing compared to the itinerary for the Rolling Stones, Beyoncé or even
Former Vermont Gov. Madeline Kunin at JAWS Camp 2013
 with Pat Thomas. 
Kenny Chesney. But performers aren’t the only ones who need to hit the road if they want to build successful careers.

Health and medical journalism graduate students traveled frequently during fall semester, making short road trips to Atlanta and Gainesville, FL, and longer ones to Burlington, VT, and Irvine, CA. At professional meetings they met online innovators, established scientists and science writers, and top women journalists.

Members of the HMJ crew helped organize and lead workshops, wrote reports for a top science organization, blogged sessions for conference organizers, used what they heard to launch stories of their own, and had real-life conversations with people who had previously been distant, bold-faced names. (Such as Jill Abramson and Nate Silver.)

They learned lessons large and small, as two blog posts by Ian Branam illustrate.

LinkedIn for Journalists
By Ian Branam
As a journalist, I’ve learned to get creative on a deadline. I’ve used Facebook pages, YouTube videos and research articles to assist me in my reporting.
At the Online News Association (ONA) conference this October, I acquired another resource to help me grow as a journalist: LinkedIn.
I learned that LinkedIn can be much more than a digital space to store your résumé. The LinkedIn for Journalists tutorial taught me not only the most effective way to set up your LinkedIn profile to attract prospective employers, but also, more intriguingly, how to find sources for stories.
By using the alumni tool, you can find people that worked for a certain company that might have gone to the same college as you.
For example, if there’s a breaking story that Google is releasing a new smartphone, I might want to contact a Google employee to get some exclusive information like when it’s being released or what features it will have.
By using LinkedIn’s alumni tool, I can select Google employees that graduated from UGA, and an entire list of people that fit those criteria would show up in the search results. This gives me a chance to find contact information on their LinkedIn profile or to send them a direct message on LinkedIn.
But, here comes the most important part. When I do make the decision to contact the person, I can use that connection we have as UGA alumni. By referencing the fact that we both went to the same school, this provides a sense of commonality.
People are much more inclined to talk to you if they feel like they can relate to you, which makes this a vital tool for finding experts to interview. Simply signing off with a “Go Dawgs!” can go a long way in connecting with people who might have otherwise brushed off your request to interview.
I’ve been fairly successful getting professors to set aside time to speak with me. When dealing with a busy physician or hospital executive, however, I haven’t been as lucky. This is where something like having an Alma Mater in common can make the difference.
Another helpful tool I learned from this seminar is how to go into stealth mode through the privacy settings. If I’m interested in working for a particular employer, but I don’t want them to see that I viewed their LinkedIn page, I can make myself appear anonymous when that employer pulls up who’s viewed their profile.

Lessons from the Meatless Mondays Campaign
By Ian Branam
Meatless Mondays began during World War II to save key foods for the military. Since then, Meatless Mondays have taken on a different purpose.
In 2003, Sid Lerner, a former ad man, revived the Meatless Monday in conjunction with the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. Meatless Mondays weren’t intended to save food for the military but rather to adopt healthier eating habits by going meatless one day a week.
In 2006, the campaign expanded to include other health behaviors like tobacco cessation. In short, Meatless Mondays became about dedicating the first day of every week to health.
This campaign was one of three health communication campaigns included in the “Lessons from Mature Health Communication Campaigns” session at the National Conference on Health Communication, Marketing and Media this past August. The lessons from this campaign taught me a great deal about how disseminating messages at the beginning of the week can make health communication more effective.
The shared experience of Mondays provides people with context for change. Monday represents a fresh start to adopt healthy behaviors.
We break our lives down into weeks. We plan meals by the week rather than by the month. It’s more effective to give someone a list of healthy meals at the beginning of the week before they’ve gone grocery shopping than at the end.
People also exhibit healthier behaviors at the beginning of the week.
Researchers from the Meatless Monday campaign noticed a spike in calls to smoking cessation help lines on Mondays and a gradual decline throughout the week. Every state has noticed this trend in calling patterns to quit-smoking lines.
People are more likely to start diets, exercise regimens, quit smoking and schedule doctor’s appointments on Monday than any other day according to a 2012 survey by the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future. People also search the word “healthy” more often on Monday than any other day of the week according to a 2011 survey by Google. Put simply, people are more open to healthy behaviors on Mondays.
Finally, many acute events including heart attacks and strokes happen on Monday, which researchers from Johns Hopkins believe is caused by stress and unhealthy weekend behaviors.
This is incredible insight for health communicators. As social media continues to play a greater role in communicating health information due to its cost-effectiveness and ability to directly engage with intended audiences, knowledge of trends like this is vital.
The Meatless Monday campaign also found that engagement with audiences on social media spiked on Mondays and gradually decreased throughout the week.
With programs out there like Hootsuite and SproutSocial that allow you to schedule tweets and Facebook posts in advance, this knowledge is helpful for disseminating health information that can be seamlessly integrated into peoples’ daily lives.

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Flooding the zone

It was mid-March when the first of the UGA health and medical journalism graduate student flew from Atlanta to Reno on a reporting trip. Students in this course do community journalism every year, but that usually means driving 24 miles for an interview, not flying 2,450.
Eight more HMJ students followed, traveling alone or in teams, loaded with computers and video equipment, clutching interview schedules and lists of questions begging to be asked.  
Each was responsible for one aspect of a larger story: can health professionals, businesses and consumers band together to make health care affordable for uninsured people? And can they do this by creating a nonprofit alternative to Medicaid and costly commercial insurance? The students were headed to Reno because this is where a novel program called the Access to Healthcare Network has been successful for more than seven years.
All semester the reporters analyzed the unmet needs of low-wage workers, small businesses, women, people with mental health problems, and those blindsided by emergencies. They learned how hospitals, federally subsidized clinics, nurses and community physicians could partake of a solution.  The final step was planning and executing a reporting trip to Reno.
The photo above shows mental health reporter Alicia Smith, hospital reporter Julianne Wyrick and Jodi Murphy – responsible for the small business beat – leaving UGA for their trip to Nevada.
Field reporting brought all the usual challenges: people who back out of interviews at the last minute, misunderstandings about where video can and cannot be shot, microphones that don’t work, batteries that poop out and motel rooms that are less than swanky.
When they returned to Athens, the nine members of the “Betting on Reno” team scrambled to fill gaps in reporting, struggled with balky editing software, and hectored sources for last-minute clarifications.
When the semester ended and the dust settled, they had produced about 6,000 words of edited, fact-checked copy and nine short videos. This is the kind of ambitious multimedia series that few news organizations are investing in right now
We flooded the zone because the story is important. The Access to Healthcare model works, and it fills a gap that is not going to disappear with the Affordable Care Act. Within the coming year, 5,000 people in the Athens area will be deciding whether joining a local version of the Reno plan makes sense for them.
The student reporters set out unearth everything they could to help Athenians make wise decisions.
Georgia Health News began running the “Betting on Reno” series on May 13 and will publish new stories every Monday and Thursday through June 10. This is serious journalism: no fluff, no handwringing or partisan ranting, real stories about real people who are sharing responsibility for the good of their community.
Dip into the series and you’ll discover that the Access to Healthcare Network is less like standard health insurance and more like a warehouse buyers’ club: a modest membership fee gives people access to participating doctors and hospitals at deeply discounted rates.
You won’t have to read far to learn that in early 2014, uninsured Athens-area residents who fit a certain description will become the first people outside Nevada who can purchase health and medical services this way.
And you’ll realize that the “individual mandate” provision of the Affordable Care Act doesn’t apply to people who can’t afford the cheapest plan on the state health exchange. For these people, a medical discount plan might be their best shot at care they can afford.

Is this the “teaching hospital” model for journalism education?

Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, along with other foundation executives engaged with journalism schools, stirred the pot last August by calling on schools to adopt a "teaching hospital" model for training tomorrow’s journalists. He advocated embedding big name national news people in J-schools where they would lead student investigations of major topics, generating stories suitable for national distribution.  The News21 projects are good examples of this.
“Betting on Reno” is different. It is more like a neighborhood satellite clinic associated with a teaching hospital. As a Knight Chair, my purpose is to be a practitioner in a sea of scholars. But I’ve been swimming here for seven years now. Andy Miller, CEO and founder of Georgia Health News and our prime media partner for health journalism, more closely resembles the working journalists Eric Newton had in mind. The teaching hospital approach wasn’t practical for “Betting on Reno,” however, because Miller could not step away from his daily news operation to spend a semester in residence at UGA.
So I ran the course and Andy joined in at crucial points: helping the students determine whether they had marshaled the right datasets for their beats, providing political and historical context, and ultimately making thumbs up or thumbs down decisions about publishing their stories.
The third key member of the editorial brain trust is independent writer and editor Sonya Collins, an HMJ graduate who runs her own Atlanta-based business. She worked closely with every writer, asking hard questions and helping make the prose a pleasure to read. Together the three of us shaped the finished series.    
So whether you think this qualifies as a teaching hospital story or not, the “Betting on Reno” series clearly demonstrates that collaborations between academic institutions and professional news organizations can deliver genuine public service journalism – empowering users and delving deeply into stories that otherwise would be told superficially, if at all.