Students return from first-ever Health Journalism in Cuba study away trip

From May 30 to June 8, a group of students from Grady College participated in a new study away Maymester program in Havana, Cuba.

The program, titled “Health Journalism in Cuba,” gave both undergraduate and graduate student travelers an in-depth look at the island nation’s healthcare system and how local and international journalists find and convey health stories to the public.

Students Delaney Tarr and Keshondra Shipp learn how to dance the salsa.
Keshondra Shipp (L) and Delaney Tarr (R) learn Cuban Salsa during a class at El Centro de Investigaciones Psicológicas y Sociológicas (CIPS) in Havana, Cuba, on June 6, 2022. (Photo: Maureen Costello)

“This unique, interdisciplinary program was such a valuable experience for all involved,” said Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair of Health and Medical Journalism at the College. Rice coordinated the program with the help of Hilda Mata of the Office of Global Engagement and Maureen Costello, of the Lamar Dodd School of Art. 

While there, students had the opportunity to have one-on-one conversations with Cuban health and science journalists, and they were able to speak with doctors, nurses and sports medicine specialists about a public health system that differs from what exists in the United States.

“It was amazing to observe ‘aha’ moments as they noted the differences and stepped outside of their comfort zones for this truly eye-opening intercultural exchange,” Rice added.

Over the course of the 10-day trip, students also had the opportunity to explore in and around Havana. They toured a nature reserve, tried local honey, visited radio and television studios, and, of course, visited local hospitals and clinics, among other activities.

“It was a great atmosphere. It’s a gem. I don’t know how else to describe it,” Keshondra Shipp, a Health and Medical Journalism graduate student, said about visiting Las Terrazas, a small, rural community outside of Havana.

To document their trip, students were tasked with creating blog posts and photo stories. Regularly, they were able to converse with health care professionals and journalists, as well as mass communication students at the University of Havana, about their experiences.

“Having the opportunity to do this sort of cultural exchange while in school is so important,” said Alex Anteau, also a Health and Medical Journalism graduate student.

“Despite the fact that the planet is very large, a lot of the problems people face are very universal – especially when it comes to health communication,” Anteau added. “On the whole, we are really dealing with similar issues, and it is really interesting to see how people with different backgrounds approach those challenges.”

  • Students visit the Cuban Institute of Radio and Television (ICRT) in Havana, Cuba. They are seated in front of portraits of José Martí (left) and Juan Gualberto Gómez (right). (Photo/Sabriya Rice)

Health and Medical Journalism program to work with new Kaiser Health News Southern Bureau

The Health and Medical Journalism graduate program at Grady College will work with Kaiser Health News on a new initiative to boost health care coverage in the south.

Kaiser Health News received $2.3 million from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to support the creation of a Southern Bureau.

Sabriya Rice, the College’s Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, will be senior advisor for the new bureau and Andy Miller, CEO and editor of Georgia Health News, will serve as interim bureau chief.

The goal of the new bureau is to produce more journalism focusing on health, race, equity and poverty in the region.

“We are proud to be involved with the new KHN Bureau and we expect this will lead to unique experiential learning opportunities for our health and medical journalism students and those curious about the field,” Rice said.

Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair in Health & Medical Journalism, will serve as a senior advisor for the new Southern Bureau of the Kaiser Health Network.

The KHN Southern Bureau will have a home office in Atlanta and hire nine new positions to support reporting in at least five states. KHN also will work with freelancers and media partners throughout the region. This expansion brings the number of KHN regional bureaus to four – including those in California, the Midwest, and the Mountain States – in addition to the KHN national newsroom Washington D.C.

The program is expected to provide students experiential learning opportunities like assistantships and fellowships, real-time feedback on stories and assignments and the chance to publish in a national newsroom. Rice will consult with KHN on potential story ideas in the region and students will be able to participate in research and reporting capacities that enhance their classroom knowledge.

The Kaiser Family Foundation, which supports the KHN, will establish a pool of funds to be used to seek matching commitments from national, state, and regional funders throughout the South. KHN will seek to partner with local media throughout the region to produce deeply reported stories that shed light on underreported issues. The South has long fared poorly on measures of health care access and health outcomes and has been marked by chronically high rates of uninsured residents—problems linked with larger issues of politics, race, and inequality. The coronavirus pandemic has thrown such disparities into even sharper relief.

The goal is to bring the same high-quality health and health policy journalism that KHN produces elsewhere to the South, and to bring important stories from the Southern Bureau to the nation. As with all its journalism, KHN stories produced from the Southern Bureau will be made freely available for publication by media outlets throughout the region and the country and will be published on khn.org and distributed through KHN’s social media platforms.

Employment opportunities for the Southern Bureau will be posted soon at https://www.kff.org/employment-opportunities/.

#ProfilesOfTenacity: Madeline Laguaite

Who has had the biggest impact on your life during your time at UGA?

My program director and friend Sabriya Rice has definitely had the biggest impact on my life during my time at UGA. Not only has she been an incredible professor and mentor, but she continuously advocates for me, both inside and outside of the UGA bubble. My knowledge of health reporting has increased tenfold thanks to Professor Rice’s skillful teaching and the way she combines typical coursework and experiential learning. She’s changed my life for the better and I consider myself lucky to know and look up to her. 

What is your favorite app or social media channel?

I love Twitter. Journalism Twitter comes in handy when I’m catching up on the news, brainstorming story ideas, exploring potential sources or browsing relatable tweets from other journalists.

What is an example of a time you used your studies and skills in a real-world experience? 

Last summer, I was able to leverage my health and medical journalism skills as the senior editorial intern for WebMD. The internship was virtual, and I was able to confidently use my health writing skills every day. The health and medical courses I’ve completed facilitated my transition from editorial intern to senior editorial intern, and continue to inform my work as a freelancer today.

Where is your favorite place on campus?

My favorite place on campus is probably the main library. I’ve spent so many hours there during my undergrad career and especially during grad school — it’s almost like a second home.  

What has been your proudest moment in the past year?

I think for me, my proudest moment would be producing my first-ever podcast, while juggling my assistantship, my contracted position at WebMD, freelance work and my full graduate course load during a pandemic. In my experience, all that hard work has been so rewarding.

What are you planning to do after graduating? What is your dream job?

After graduating, I plan to freelance fulltime and hope to eventually find a fulltime position in health content writing. My dream job would be working fulltime for WebMD, ideally writing LGBTQ health content.  

What would people be surprised to know about you? 

I have an axolotl, which is an amphibian and specifically a neotenic salamander. He lives in an aquarium and loves snacking on worms and playing with the moss balls in his tank. 

What are you passionate about?

I’m really passionate about LGBTQ health. It’s an area of health that doesn’t get as much attention but is incredibly important. The queer community faces significant health disparities due to discrimination and societal stigma, so LGBTQ folks often face higher rates of conditions. A lack of nationally representative data on queer folks in the U.S. is also a continuous issue that often comes up when I’m reporting on LGBTQ health, but motivates me all the more.  

What has been the hardest part about adjusting to COVID-19 in your life as a student and future professional?

For me, the hardest part about adjusting to the pandemic is finding the work/life balance again. Because I work and take classes online, I’m sitting in the same place (my kitchen table at home), day in and day out, so it’s a little more difficult to remember to take breaks. When you’re working from home, that fine line between work and your personal life becomes even finer.

Who is your professional hero?

Right now, my professional hero is Apoorva Mandavilli. She’s a reporter for The New York Times who focuses on science and global health. Following her comprehensive coverage of the COVID-19 pandemic has been inspiring and I aspire to cover health beats as she does: relaying critical information in a straightforward but engaging way.

Sabriya Rice receives re-election to AHCJ board of directors

The Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ) has selected Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism, to its board of directors for an additional term. Rice will also serve as secretary of the board for this two-year period.

We asked Rice for more information on her selection and work with AHCJ.

Grady College: How long have you been a member of AHCJ? What does it mean to be involved for you?

Rice: “Through my employers, I had the opportunity to participate in many of AHCJ’s workshops and training sessions long before I officially became a member in 2014. My affiliation with the nonprofit has definitely made me a stronger, more cautious journalist.”

“It means a lot to be a part of a group that aims to improve the quality of journalism, particularly for those who find themselves on the massive health care beat. I definitely look back at some of the stories I wrote before being introduced to AHCJ and think to myself, ‘I’d totally approach that story differently now!’ And that is a good thing.”

GC: What drove you to run for the AHCJ board of directors? What has your experience been like?

SR: “There are two main factors that inspired me to run for the board. The first was wanting to give back in a meaningful way–by supporting the programs that helped to shape my reporting savvy, by sharing my personal insight and experiences as a member, and when possible, introducing new ideas to further our progress.”

“The second was to increase diversity among our members. The fact that there are large health disparities for people of color in the U.S. is well known. Having more representatives from those groups can help us tell those stories with nuance and empathy. We want to do this in a way that is less stigmatizing and ensures that the messages will reach the audiences most affected.”

“We have an amazing group that is not afraid to ask tough questions and take on new challenges. It’s been a rewarding experience that has helped me connect more purposefully with journalists from across the country and identify areas where AHCJ can have an additional impact.”

GC: How has your work on the board and the focus of AHCJ shifted with COVID-19?

SR: “Currently, I’m vice-chair of AHCJ’s Right to Know (RTK) committee, the advocacy arm that advocates for openness and transparency of public information. We provide resources for members striving to shed light on complex topics, and COVID-19 definitely falls into that category.”

“Nearly every journalist covered health care over the past few months, whether or not their typical beat was sports, politics, entertainment or education. One of our current RTK goals is to assess the real-time challenges journalists faced seeking public data on the spread of coronavirus.”

“We’re also curious about the deliberate sharing of bad information whether that be from public officials or trolls on social media—and how that is impacting both the quality of reporting and the workload of newsrooms.”

Sabriya Rice assesses journalism amid the Covid-19 pandemic

Sabriya Rice, Knight Chair for Health and Medical Journalism, has worked for some of the nations’ foremost authorities in medical journalism. She uses her experience now to train journalists covering medical events. We asked Rice for her thoughts on coverage surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic. 

How do you think journalism on COVID-19 compares to previous virus outbreaks?

Rice: “Over the course of my reporting career, I covered various disease outbreaks and concerning public health threats, including the Swine flu for CNN, the Middle East Respiratory Syndrome and Ebola for Modern Healthcare, and Zika for The Dallas Morning News. However, one of the major differences I have noticed this time around has been the wall-to-wall coverage of the novel coronavirus, and how COVID-19 has affected nearly every journalism beat.

“I like to follow the top stories across a variety of beats— including politics, entertainment, sports, climate, and the financial markets. So I spend about an hour every morning reading, watching, or listening to stories on my phone’s News App. As a professor of health journalism, I also tend to look for examples to share with students of how reporters on those beats are sometimes tasked with covering health care stories.

“In late February, I took a screengrab because every top story across every beat was related to the coronavirus. That was an intense moment for me, and a sign that this would be different from any outbreak I covered in the past.”

Four months into the pandemic, what lessons have been learned on covering a global medical event?

Rice: “The COVID-19 pandemic has proven why health journalism is an important area of specialty, and why it is important for our government to create open channels of communication that make both data and subject matter experts available in a timely fashion.

Students from the Introduction to Health and Medical Journalism class tour Piedmont Athens Regional.(from l.) Andi Clements, Jillian Tracy, Madeline Laguaite, Brittany Carter and Sabriya Rice.
(Photo: Sarah E. Freeman, March 2020)

“In breaking news situations, reporters are scrambling to get the facts and share the latest, most accurate information. However, as we’ve seen during the COVID-19, there is the potential to share misinformation, misuse anecdotes, and to report on unvetted research. Those are some pitfalls that trained health journalists are more likely to avoid, though it remains a struggle.

UGA’s health and medical journalism program prepares the next generation of journalists on how to critically approach healthcare and science stories, so they can report accurately without confusing the public. I’m a board member of the Association of Health Care Journalists (AHCJ), a nonprofit whose workshops and training programs that help elevate the quality of health journalism have definitely been in high demand.

“What we want to avoid is exactly what is depicted in one of my favorite parodies about the confusing messages communicated during the heart of  COVID-19 lockdowns. The parody, from country singer Adley Stump, called “What We Should All Be Doing Right Now” looks at how messages can be confusing when poorly communicated during a press conference. It clearly resonated, as the video has been viewed nearly four million times since it posted in April.

“And it speaks to something that AHCJ’s Right To Know Committee has been pressing for, which is access to information and experts from our top government health officials. It’s clear that there needs to be better working relationships between journalists and the government.”

With much conflicting information, how do you best determine what information is valid in regard to COVID-19?

Rice: “As journalism graduate student, Lexie Little, pointed out in a post last year following UGA’s State of the Public’s Health Conference,  health misinformation spreads quickly… and even more concerning is that, once it’s out there, it’s hard to convince people that the erroneous information they heard about is not actually true.

“The best thing is not to put it out there in the first place. As journalists, we must avoid reprinting press releases that can be riddled with spin. We’ve seen a lot of this recently, with pharmaceutical companies releasing data on potential vaccines that have not yet been published in peer-reviewed journals, with hospitals sharing anecdotal evidence about treatments and cures and with individual scientists suggesting they have identified new strains and mutations of the coronavirus.

“We all need to apply a healthy bit of skepticism as consumers of information. As a reporter, one of the first things I look for in a story is an explanation of where the data came from. If the data is from a study, I expect the story to explain at least three things: 1) who funded the research — to understand if there could be a conflict of interest; 2) how many patients were included— to understand the potential scope and; 3) whether the information was published in a credible medical journal—which suggests that more than just the study’s researchers are on board with the findings.”

In your opinion, what is next for this pandemic/story?

Rice: “Before we dramatically shifted to coverage of COVID-19, all eyes were on the 2020 presidential candidates and how they planned to address the persistent challenges of health insurance coverage and health care access in the United States. Several policies were up for debate, including the potential introduction of subsidies for immigrants, expanding Medicaid in states that had not yet done so and the introduction of public options.

“If anything, this pandemic has highlighted the demand for further discussions.. COVID-19 put a spotlight, in real-time, on the gaping health care disparities faced by people of color and low-income communities, which put them at higher risk of death from the virus, and the huge divide in resources and access to care that exists between rural and urban areas. I anticipate, there will be many stories digging deeper into the existing policies in each state, with reporters investigating potential solutions that had been tabled and emerging ideas prompted by the pandemic response.

“Long term, I also anticipate more deep dives into the broader impact of coronavirus on a variety of health indicators. These may include mental health, as individuals coped with life in isolation; food insecurity, as farms and factories shut down and adjusted prices; and enrollment in Medicaid, as millions lost their jobs, and therefore, their employer-based health insurance. The increase in uninsured, paired with the fear of contracting COVID-19, led many to report skipping a medical appointment, and so reporters will be keeping an eye on whether we see an uptick in health problems not associated with coronavirus.”

Some of Grady College’s Health and Medical Journalism students have written about COVID-19 for Georgia Health News. You can read their work here:

Rice and her fellow Knight Chairs from higher education institutions across the country recently released a letter addressing violence against journalists during public protests. You can read that letter here.

Grady alumni offer tips tor reporting on COVID-19 from home

Editor’s Note: this feature originally appeared on the Medicaljournalism.grady.uga.edu website.

Quarantine started early for Erica Hensley, an investigative reporter with Mississippi Today. In early March, she attended a conference focused on computer-assisted reporting in New Orleans, hosted by the Investigative Reporters and Editors. A few days later, IRE announced that a conference guest had tested positive for COVID-19, and all attendees were advised to self-quarantine for 14 days.

Erica Hensley working from home (photo provided)

“I started covering coronavirus as a potential patient from home,” Hensley said. “Which meant I was having to call into every press conference. I was having to do my best to research and fact-check from home. Because I literally couldn’t leave to go chase stuff down,” she said.

Journalism is a hands-on career. Reporters go into the field and make direct contact with sources to gather the facts and see things for themselves. However, on March 11 the World Health Organization officially deemed the spread of COVID-19 a pandemic, leading to more widespread social distancing measures. The dynamics of reporting was forced to change at a time when health reporting is all the more important. At the same time, access to key experts— such as emergency room doctors and epidemiologists— became more difficult as those essential workers managed the virus’ spread.

“You also feel bad calling them sometimes because you’re like, ‘I’m sorry. I know you’re super busy and you have really important healthcare things you need to do and not just talk to journalists,’” explained Victoria Knight, a reporter for Kaiser Health News.

But she and other Grady alumnae said that while coronavirus has disrupted their day-to-day routines, it hasn’t stopped them from getting important information out to the public.

“I think it’s important to not give up and just keep going,” Knight said.

It’s Never Too Late To Learn New Skills

In a series of short videos shared with current Grady students, alumnae of the health and medical journalism program who work in the fields of journalism and public affairs said they have found innovative ways to maneuver this new normal.

They offered suggestions for covering the most popular news story of our time, including tips for using video animations, for moving beyond the numbers to add context and for taking cues from what other news organizations are doing.

“It’s never too late to learn new skills,” said Hyacinth Empinado of STAT News. As a multimedia journalist, she creates animated explainers to help simplify complex ideas, like how COVID-19 compares to other causes of death.

She encouraged students to learn video animation technologies like After Effects and D3. The Adobe Creative Suite provides access to a form of reporting that doesn’t require going out into the field to collect footage, Empinado explained.

Hensley said she relies on her understanding of the social determinants of health to add context to her stories on COVID-19.  Each day she scrapes data from her health department’s website to get an update on the number of coronavirus cases in her state. But she tries to look beyond the numbers.

“What do these increases and tests mean? What are our per capita rates for our counties?” Hensley asks herself.

Lauren Baggett, director of communications for UGA’s College of Public Health and host of the show Health Desk on the WUGA, suggested looking at what other news outlets are covering, particularly those on the local level.

“Our local Athens papers are really doing a better job of communicating the resources that are available to individuals and families in our community,” she said.  Stories about how locals can support the service industry are top of mind for consumers of news, she said.

Alumnae advised current students to keep pressing on, despite the challenges, and to view the pandemic as an opportunity to innovate alternative approaches to reporting and storytelling.

You’re not alone, they told students.

“This is an unprecedented time. We are learning a lot, and we’re learning a lot on the go,” Baggett said.

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.

Sabriya Rice, the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, explains why it’s so important for student journalists to understand medical terms. “If you can’t fully explain the term,” Rice says, “you can’t explain it to your audience.” (photo: Sarah E. Freeman)

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.

Sherry Ann Ward, director of patient and employee safety at St. Mary’s Hospital, shows Jillian Tracy the proper way to t wear an N95 mask on Feb. 12, 2020. (photo: Sabriya Rice)

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.”

Editor’s note: The visit to Piedmont Athens Regional took place February 27. The visit to St. Mary’s was on February 12. At the time of publication, the students had two stories published on the Georgia Health News website: “From a scare in Shanghai to a quarantine in Georgia” and “Quiet but not calm in a virus ghost town.”

Grady College’s Yan Jin selected by WhatsApp to research spread of misinformation

WhatsApp, the Facebook-owned messaging platform, has selected a research team including Yan Jin, Georgia Athletic Association Professor in Grady College and assistant department head of advertising and public relations, to analyze how misinformation spreads and its impact on elderly during disease outbreaks.

WhatsApp selected 20 global research projects out of nearly 600 proposals and invested a total of $1 million to investigate how misinformation is spread and perceived.

Jin is part of a team of five researchers, two from the United Kingdom and two from India, who collectively were selected to research misinformation vulnerabilities among elderly during disease outbreak.

“Researchers want their work to create personal impact that helps individuals and communities,” Jin said. “Crisis communications must go beyond protecting the reputation of brands or organizations because public safety and well-being must be the top priority.”

Jin also serves as associate director of the Center for Health and Risk Communication, based at Grady College.

Jin is helping design the experimentation phase of the research with a focus on how different formats of information with varied accuracy level (accurate information vs. misinformation) affect people’s information trust, perceived source credibility and disease severity, and their intention to share such information on social media. The research team seeks to empower smartphone users to skillfully assess the accuracy of information on social media related to disease outbreak.

Based on real-world examples that circulated on WhatsApp during the 2018 Nipah Virus outbreak, the assessment method will use a variety of text elements, imagery and a combination of both to help determine if misinformation spreads more easily through a certain type of information delivery.

Whatsapp logo

The survey will be administered to elderly adults and their children in Bangalore, India, an area that dealt with multiple disease outbreaks as recent as 2018.

“We are basing our language and graphics on content seen in this community earlier this year,” Jin said. “It is important to be culturally authentic so we can best understand how our participants assess the accuracy of information.”

Jin said her team’s goal is to gather knowledge about how people process misinformation and recommend accurate information dissemination strategies to present to WhatsApp. The results will then be shared with public health organizations to help officials more effectively inform citizens of health risks in their communities.

The research team consists of:

  • Santosh Vijaykumar (principal investigator), Northumbria University (United Kingdom)
  • Venkat Chilukuri, Srishti Institute of Art, Design and Technology (India)
  • Yan Jin, University of Georgia, Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication (United States)
  • Arun Nair, Health Systems Research India Initiative (India)
  • Claudia Pagliari, University of Edinburgh (United Kingdom)

 

 

Health and Medical Journalism students shine light on Mountain Medicine

While today’s technology has improved the ability for journalists to conduct interviews by phone or email, there are many stories that cannot be told without a one-on-one interview.

For this reason, Pat Thomas, the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism, assigned her eight students to participate in the second annual rural health reporting project, venturing to northwest Georgia near Rome and Dalton, Georgia. The goal of the five-day trip was to tell stories that wouldn’t ordinarily be written because there are not enough reporters in rural Georgia areas to cover them.

“The reason experience is so important,” said Thomas, “is in real life, journalists have to go places that they don’t know much about. You can do some research in advance, but part of it you have to learn on the ground. Often you have a topic when you go, but you don’t really know what your story is…you don’t know your narrative or the characters. That you have to discover in the field.”

The series of features written by the HMJ graduate students, can be read through Georgia Health News.

Flexibility is key and a valuable lesson for the students.

Student Saleen Martin kept reminding herself of the question she set out to answer: “What happens when a state hospital closes?” Mental illness is a subject she has always been passionate about, and writing about what happened to the patients once the Northwest Georgia Regional Hospital closed became a personal mission. It took her in several different directions, however.

“The biggest lesson I learned is that sometimes things won’t work out the way you expected them to,” Martin said. “Part of being a journalist is adapting…looking at the information you’ve gathered and figuring out what you can and can’t use.”

Martin also said that having the opportunity to talk one-on-one with her subjects made all the difference in the world, especially for one of her subjects, Delores Nowell.

“I am so appreciative for her willingness to speak to me, especially about such a sensitive topic,” Martin said. “Those things are hard enough to do, and it’s just not the same over the phone or via email.”

Establishing the confidence and trust in a building relationship between a journalist and her subject is vital.

“If I hadn’t been sitting directly across from her, I wouldn’t have been able to see or capture her eye movements as she peers at the floor, reliving her experiences as she roamed the streets of Atlanta, or when she was first taken to Northwest (General Regional Hospital.) I wouldn’t have been able to shake her hand or smile, letting her know that it’s safe to talk to us.”

For the second year in a row, the features the students wrote will be published in Georgia Health News. This year’s series, “Mountain Medicine 2017: Health in Northwest Georgia,” includes the following features written by the graduate students:

A little-known star of hospital safety in Georgia, by Andy Miller (Georgia Health News editor)

A place that pulls addicts back from the brink, by Kristina Griffith

For immigrant workers, corporate health plans can be an awkward fit, by Jim Lichtenwalter

High school students learn to eat better — and feed others better, by Melissa Campbell

Meals on Wheels: Volunteers deliver food as they fret about funding, by Elspeth Male

Not just a school clinic, but a clinic that’s at a school, by Abraham Park

Old attitudes still cast shadow over fight against HIV, by Victoria Knight

Re-entry program brings former nurses back into the profession, by Naomi Thomas

Years after hospital closed, some former patients struggle for safe housing, by Saleen Martin

Other features will be posted in upcoming weeks.

Georgia Health News editor and CEO Andy Miller, who traveled with the group and Thomas, said the program is invaluable to his publication.

“What Georiga Health News gets is original, well-reported, interesting stories on topics we wouldn’t cover otherwise,” Miller said. “I’ve been constantly impressed by the UGA students’ work.”

The experiential learning trip was funded by a grant from the Healthcare Georgia Foundation and the Institute of International Education, with travel support made possible by the Ford Foundation.

Grady professor teaches students to communicate science effectively

The following was originally a Faculty Profile in the May 15, 2017, UGA Columns newspaper.

Focus on Faculty; Patrica Thomas with graduate student Hyacinth Empinado (health and medical journalism)
Pat Thomas advises Hyacinth Empinado (MA ’14) on a project. (Photo/Dorothy Kozlowski)

Biographical Box:
Patricia Thomas
Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism
Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication, Department of Journalism
Years at the University of Georgia: 12
Degrees: Stanford University, Masters in Communication, 1970
University of California at Berkeley, Bachelor of Arts in English, 1969

When Pat Thomas read the online posting for the newly-created Knight Chair at the University of Georgia, she felt that all her life experiences had prepared her for this job.

“From the minute I saw this job description I thought, ‘wow, I have what they are looking for,’” Thomas said.

UGA wanted an experienced journalist tuned in to health disparities in the South, who could help graduate students, researchers and public health professionals communicate more effectively.

Over the past 12 years, creating Grady’s graduate program in health and medical journalism has been her focus. Thomas came up with a curriculum that emphasizes evidence-based reporting and empathic storytelling.

“I think of it as scientifically-based coverage of subjects that are intensely personal,” Thomas said. “We all have illnesses and loved ones with illnesses we wish they didn’t have. We need to empower the public with good information about these things. That’s the kind of reporters that I am trying to train.”

For example, Thomas makes sure students come face-to-face with health disparities in the region. In 2007, HMJ students traveled to New Orleans to report on the rebuilding of healthcare two years after Katrina. More recently, she led reporting trips to rural areas of Georgia, where students generated multimedia stories about poverty and health for Georgia Health News.

Thomas is also passionate about diseases of neglected people around the world. She spent four years researching “Big Shot: Passion, Politics, and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine,” which was included on the Washington Post’s list of notable books in 2001.

Thomas and Dan Colley, the recently retired director of the Center for Tropical and Emerging Global Diseases, teamed up to direct the “Global Diseases: Voices from the Vanguard” series for the past 12 years. They have brought 46 internationally-known speakers to UGA including  researchers, journalists, authors, filmmakers and communication directors from WHO and CDC.

“I hope we have communicated that you don’t have to be a scientist or a doctor to help. You can help if you are a journalist or communicator,” Thomas said.

Thomas has been part of a UGA Graduate School initiative that help faculty researchers and graduate students discover new ways to communicate their research stories.

This training is an area she knows well from her career before UGA. Thomas was the first woman editor of the Harvard Health Letter and a contributor to a host of magazines and newsletters. She had also been a Knight Science Journalism fellow at Massachusetts Institute of Technology and a visiting scholar at the Knight Center for Science and Medical Journalism at Boston University.

Despite her history with private institutions, The University of Georgia’s land-grant mission holds a special appeal for Thomas.

“I have met so many wonderful researchers in the sciences at UGA who do important work here,” Thomas continued. “It’s a land-grant institution and it is an obligation to try to make life better for the citizens of your state.”

Thomas lives by this mission of helping others in her personal life, as well. In addition to serving on the editorial board of the UGA Press for several years, Thomas was active in the original Partnership in a Prosperous Athens, and its offspring, Athens Health Network.

“In a town with a 30% poverty rate, we need to think about our neighbors a little more,” Thomas said. “We are all on the same ship.”

Earlier this year, Thomas announced her retirement. While she plans to continue writing, she looks forward to “reading that 3-foot-wide shelf of books that I have purchased, but not read.”

In the meantime, Thomas has a legacy of graduates who will continue the vital work of shedding light on untold health issues.

“I have seen graduates in my program do wonderful things,” Thomas concluded, “and, I expect them to continue to do wonderful things by turning science into stories that people can relate to.”