Training the next generation of top-notch health reporters

This story originally appeared on the Discover UGA website

Students in the University of Georgia’s Health and Medical Journalism program are learning the skills that will ultimately help members of the public separate fact from fiction and make smart choices, whether they’re in the doctor’s office, the grocery store or the voting booth.

“We used to like to say in journalism that a good reporter can cover anything, but technology and instantaneous communication has created a surplus of information and a shortage of wisdom,” said Patricia Thomas, head of the HMJ program and professor in the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. “It’s easier and easier for generalists to drown in the firehose of information, and I think that calls for specialized reporting skills; it calls for people who actually know something about the area that they cover.”

Thomas has written about medicine, public health and life sciences for many years, and she was editor of the Harvard Health Letter from 1991 to 1997. She is also author of the book “Big Shot: Passion, Politics, and the Struggle for an AIDS Vaccine.” She uses her vast experience working the health beat to help intrepid young journalists develop the skills and skepticism needed to cover health and medicine anywhere in the world, for any audience, in any medium.

“What I wanted to do when I started this program was to build better reporters faster,” said Thomas, who has led the professional master’s program endowed by the Knight Foundation since 2009. “It’s a rigorous academic program, but students get a lot of hands-on experience.

“I throw them into the pool, but I’m always right there ready to fish them out if they start to drown. I want them to become working journalists while they do their coursework, and I think they’re stronger for it.”

Her students have written hundreds of stories, produced several award-winning videos and worked a variety of news beats that range in scope from late-breaking scientific discoveries to the disappearance of rural clinics.

A dogged reporter and editor, Thomas insists that her students produce accurate, timely, interesting and credible articles—and that they also push the boundaries of what is considered “health.” She is fond of saying that almost any story has a health component, and her students have taken that advice to heart, tackling extraordinarily diverse topics such as honeybee die-offs, well water quality, grief camps for children and concussions among football players.

In 2010, HMJ began The Med School Project, a series of video documentaries and print stories about the recently formed Georgia Regents University/UGA Medical Partnership. Student reporters followed medical students, faculty, administrators and Athens community members to document the school’s impact. After a brief hiatus, the Med School Project will resume this fall to see how this new resource has changed lives throughout northeast Georgia.

April Bailey (MA ’14) was a producer for “Match Madness” when she was a Health and Medical Journalism student.
April Bailey (MA ’14) was a producer for “Match Madness
when she was a Health and Medical Journalism student.

“The medical school has been very supportive of our project, and I’m delighted that they want us to continue covering its development as the two hospitals in town transition from being community hospitals to academic medical centers,” Thomas said. “This is a great opportunity, because almost no journalists get to be present at the creation of med school campuses or teaching hospitals, but my students will get to be right on the front lines.”

It’s projects like these that have given HMJ graduates the skills and confidence to take on jobs in news media, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, research universities and medical professional associations. 

“Some of our most successful graduates are self-employed or have been entrepreneurial and started enterprises of their own,” Thomas said. “But it’s also worth noting that some of our graduates have gone on to doctoral programs to become researchers themselves.”

Regardless of the profession they choose, Thomas knows the experiences her students have and the mentorship she provides will give her students a leg up in a competitive job market as they leave UGA with a strong work portfolio.

As the program continues to grow, she hopes that incoming students will have even greater opportunities to practice and perfect their craft.

“We are a small program, but we are a young program,” Thomas said. “There are a lot of opportunities at the University of Georgia, and HMJ students have the ability to make this program work for them so that they leave prepared to do the job they want to do.”

For more information about the Health and Medical Journalism program or to apply, see

Date: June 23, 2015
Author:  James Hataway,, Office for the Vice President for Research