Jillian Tracy (from l.), Brittany Carter, Andi Clements and Madeline Laguaite talk with McKenna Parker, the infectious preventionist at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center during a tour on Feb. 27, 2020.
(photo: Sarah E. Freeman)
Health and Medical Journalism students report on coronavirus
When four Introduction to Health and Medical Journalism students sat around a table with several intensive care unit nurses, infection preventionists and public relations professionals at Piedmont Athens Regional Medical Center on February 27, 2020, they were discussing the possibility of coronavirus coming to the area.
The discussion at the time was hypothetical.
Little did they know, a few weeks later they would be on the forefront of insight into local preparations for what many call the biggest story in recent time—and, they would see their class assignments published in Georgia Health News.
The students also learned first-hand what most professional journalists already know: the story journalists are assigned to cover can drastically change and be totally different by the time it is printed.
Madeline Laguaite, a graduate student in Grady’s health journalism master’s program, has experienced how quickly things have changed. The original story idea was evaluating the preparedness of Athens area hospitals if this novel coronavirus strain, now known as COVID-19, appeared in Athens.
“By the time it was ready to publish the week of March 15, the situation had changed,” Laguaite said. “COVID-19 cases in the U.S. were starting to pick up and it wasn’t really a question of if COVID-19 cases would appear in Athens, but when.”
Laguaite quickly learned another lesson of seasoned journalists: stories come on their own time, not the most convenient time. Although the story was turned before spring break, Laguaite spent most of that next week updating the story to make it accurate and relevant to what was happening at the time. She researched the decisions that local policymakers were making to protect the residents of Athens and talked with local restauranteurs about the economic impact of closing their restaurants.
“My motivation to continue updating and interviewing sources for the story came from my love of health reporting,” she continued. “Although the COVID-19 situation is uncertain and can be frightening, this is a great time to be getting a master’s in health and medical journalism.”
All four students in Sabriya Rice’s class are getting more experience than they expected when the class started in January. What started out as a typical master’s class for Laguaite, Jillian Tracy, Brittany Carter and Andrea (Andi) Clements, quickly diverged to an actual breaking news subject that the students could research, interview and report on in real time as they would if they were professional journalists.
To add to the experience, Rice arranged to have the final features reviewed and considered for print in Georgia Health News, which published the first two stories and is considering future features.
As information about coronavirus started to intensify in China and Europe, the students started looking at local angles including a phone interview with a local resident who returned from international travel and had self-quarantined. They also visited and toured St. Mary’s and Piedmont Athens Regional hospitals. The students learned about negative pressure rooms, the correct way to put on an N-95 mask and how even taking out the trash and flushing the toilet have special procedures if there is a potentially infected patient.
“It definitely helps to get an idea for the atmosphere and a better visual understanding of the process,” said Tracy, a Double Dawg finishing her journalism degree and starting her master’s degree, about the impact of the tour. “Just getting thrown in is sometimes the best way to learn.”
The goal for Rice was to make sure her students were getting the experience, so they would not be intimidated when the time came for real reporting. The experience writing the stories and seeing them in print has been icing on the cake.
Despite the lack of down time over spring break, the class has been an eye-opening experience for Laguaite that has confirmed her interest in becoming a health reporter.
“This has definitely been a learning experience for sure,” Laguaite concluded. “With medical journalism, misinformation can be downright dangerous. We get new information about coronavirus every day and it really made me appreciate the work that health reporters do even more than I already do.”