Healthy Journalism

Friday, September 19, 2014

All Ebola, all the time

Liberian journalist Wade C. L. Williams interviewing in the field. 

That’s how HMJ’12 graduate Laura Smith described her health communications work at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention on the day President Obama came to visit.

Carolyn Crist (HMJ’14) said the same, five weeks earlier, when physician Kent Brantly and health worker Nancy Writebol arrived at Emory University Hospital for what turned out to be life-saving care. Crist kept vigil in greater Atlanta and filed nearly every day for 

For Liberian journalist Wade C. L. Williams, life has been “all Ebola, all the time” since the first cases were identified in March. She is the newsroom chief for Front Page Africa and her coverage of women in West Africa had already won international awards before the Ebola catastrophe hit.

Williams comes to UGA next month, where she will give a talk at the UGA Chapel on Thursday, Oct. 23. The event begins at 4 p.m and all are welcome.

She’ll have a conversation with a select group of GradyCollege students the day before her public talk, as part of the McGill Symposium. This is Grady’s annual celebration of journalistic courage, and first-year HMJ student Christopher McGee is one of this year’s McGill Fellows.

Williams will also spend time with students and faculty associated with the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases. CTEGD, Grady College and UGA’s Office for Academic Programs all worked together to host her visit. We’re eager for her arrive and hoping that she and her family stay healthy and that Monrovia’s airport remains open.

Although Front Page Africa is still trying to dig into political scandals, economic turmoil and other big stories, Ebola coverage is stretching them thin. Williams is functioning as an editor and as a shoe leather reporter.

“I've been scared to death myself sometimes after those difficult assignments,” Williams wrote in a recent email. “I've covered burials, sick people abandoned, health facilities abandoned, I've gone into isolation centers, I've interviewed survivors. But I'm still here, well, not sick.” She’s highly conscious of CDC prevention guidelines and avoids contact with sick or dead people and their body fluids. Front Page Africa prominently displays prevention advice and tallies cases and deaths at the county level.
As an investigative reporter, Williams is not always loved by the people in power. In a New York Times op-ed piece, Williams lambastes Liberia’s government for  foot-dragging and for stifling media coverage that she says could have saved lives.

Meanwhile, the United States and other industrialized nations are finally taking Ebola seriously. As a result, the flow of people and supplies to West Africa is quickening.  

At the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, three recent HMJ graduates are on the Ebola team. Laura Smith’s work in the Joint Information Center of the Emergency Operations Center earned her an invitation to meet President Obama when he visited CDC on September 16 to announce additional aid.

All three are part of the health communications team that competes with misinformation that inevitably swirls around any high profile disease outbreak. They scramble to make sure that professionals and the public have timely and accurate information in a fast-moving world.

Lacey Avery, who graduated in 2013, works on Ebola response communications in the same room as Laura. She is part of a team working on messages about infection control and prevention in U.S. and West African healthcare settings. Marcie McClellan, a 2012 HMJ graduate, also develops content but also checks to see how messages are being received.

“I actually just back from Arizona where I spent a week facilitating trainings and focus groups, where I got feedback on our Ebola press releases,” Marcie said in a Sept. 13 email.

With disease forecasters saying that Ebola is going to get much worse before it gets better, the health journalism alums say their agency is in “all-hands-on-deck” mode for the foreseeable future. 

“This is definitely the most intense response I've been involved in,” said Laura. “It's all Ebola all the time and the information is constantly changing. My day job has been put on hold, as is the case with most people involved.”

Independent journalist Carolyn Crist also put her life on hold when an editor at offered her the chance to cover the evacuation of two Ebola-infected Americans to Atlanta.

She moved into her grandmother's house south of Atlanta and over the next week drove to press conferences and interviews with experts at Emory University, in Cartersville (where Phoenix Air is based), at Dobbins Air Base in Marietta and at Georgia State University and Georgia Tech.

Carolyn participated in three press conferences and in three embargoed phone calls about the latest Ebola vaccine studies, joining the calls with reporters from the New York Times, Nature, Washington Post, USA Today and other major outlets, an experience she describes as “thrilling.”

Six of her stories were published online by Wired; she’s now working toward a feature for the magazine. “Fingers crossed,” Carolyn says.

Ebola is a global health catastrophe, and its toll on families and communities is sad beyond measure. This is also a time when reporters and health communicators work to arm us all with information that helps us stay safe and remain connected with our fellow humans.  

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.