Tuesday, April 15, 2008

The courses formerly known as 8350

Friday, April 11 was a watershed for health and medical journalism at Grady College. That morning, members of the graduate faculty voted unanimously to create a new MA concentration at Grady College.

This means the courses formerly known as JRMC 8350, instead of being rakish “special topics” offerings, will now be in the official University of Georgia course catalog. From now on, they will be known as JRMC 7355, Health and Medical Journalism, and 7356, Advanced Health and Medical Journalism.

Not only that, but in late 2008 we begin publicizing the new MA concentration and recruiting students for enrollment in Fall 2009. There will be national publicity campaign, probably some huge parties –who knows what the roll-out will look like?

Tell your friends: we want to attract students with strong liberal arts and sciences backgrounds, in addition to those with undergraduate training in journalism, who are passionate about covering health, medicine and health policy in the historic Black Belt.

A personal note of thanks to the brave souls who helped road test these courses during the past two years. I am indebted to Kaylan Clemons, Kimberly Davis, Joe Dennis, Colin Dunlop, Tim Echols, Christy Fricks, Lenette Golding, Geoffrey Graybeal, Stuart Hendrick, Jui-Chen Liao, Alison Loudermilk, Tabitha Lovell, Sarah McLean, Pearman Parker, Grey Pentecost, Amber Roessner, Lindsey Scott, Catharin Shepard, Elizabeth Swanson, Michael Tannebaum, Tom Zimmerman and Wendi Zongker.

Monday, March 24, 2008

Ahead of the curve in Athens, GA

Last week closed with a flurry of news stories about how the rich are not only getting richer but also living longer than poor people in America. These stories were triggered by a new analysis of Department of Health and Human Services data conducted by GK Singh and M. Siahpush.

The night before the story really broke, Grady College and OneAthens gave Athenians an advance look at another perspective on the same sad story. Together we previewed part one of "Unnatural Causes: Is inequality making us sick?"

This new PBS documentary series begins airing nationally on March 27. It is a fast-paced, vivid piece of filmmaking that turns mountains of data into flesh and blood stories about real people. Three of the characters work at the same hospital, but social and economic factors make their lives -- and life expectancies -- quite different.

During panel discussions after the screening, local activists and public health experts agreed that everything the filmmakers documented in Louisville, KY, also happens in Athens.

On the plus side, we've been engaged in a community-wide study of poverty for nearly two years now and have plans for addressing it. Partners for a Prosperous Athens has spawned OneAthens, the implementation stage of the effort, and Grady College ADPR students are helping publicize this effort.

So although we're far from perfect in the Classic City, we're already moving in a good direction.

Friday, March 7, 2008

Different voices

Parking lots are uncrowded, hallways are quiet, and outside the Japanese magnolias are unfurling their flowers. It's spring break and we have time to catch up on sleep and work.

When we come back on March 17, we'll resume the conversation that journalists have all the time: about stories and the many, many ways to tell them.

Thanks to the Peabody Awards and the Willson Center for Humanities and Arts we have a chance to hear from Neal Baer,a Hollywood writer-producer-physician-activist who is executive producer of the NBC series Law & Order: Special Victims Unit and a former writer and executive producer of the Peabody Award-winning ER.

Dr. Baer also maintains a pediatric practice, teaches college courses, and is part of an African HIV/AIDS awareness project. On the evening of March 17, he will give a lecture about entertainment's capacity to teach and heal, screen an ER episode he wrote, and engage in a conversation and Q&A moderated by Dr. Horace Newcomb, Director of the Peabody Awards. The event is free and takes place from 7:30 - 10:00 p.m. in the Tate Student Center movie theater.

Three weeks later, students in JRMC 8350 will hear from a dramatically different type of storyteller. Journalist, author and medical ethicist Harriet Washington just won the 2007 National Book Critics Circle award for nonfiction. Washington, who spoke last fall during the McGill symposium, was honored for her book Medical Apartheid: The dark history of medical experimentation on Black Americans from Colonial times to the present.

On April 9, Washington will be in class to talk about how she researched and wrote one especially chilling chapter in her brave, exquisitely researched book.

Neal Baer and Harriet Washington both tell important stories about health and disease, medical care and catastrophic neglect.

Both are voices we're fortunate to hear at UGA.

Thursday, February 21, 2008

The hungry outboard mind

In-demand magazine writer Clive Thompson says that writing hundreds of thousands of words for his blog, www.collisiondetection.net, has rocked his world professionally, intellectually and socially.

Something has certainly worked for this motor-mouthed, 30-something Canadian. He washed up on Manhattan Island 10 years ago, not exactly a household name, and today he is a high-profile writer for The New York Times Magazine, a columnist for Wired and a frequent contributor to a slew of other major magazines and online publications.

On February 19, Thompson spoke to nearly 200 science writers who gathered to celebrate 25th anniversary of the Knight Science Journalism Fellowships at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology. Over the past quarter century, this highly sought, nine-month residency program has changed the lives – and generally boosted the careers – of 254 journalists from 22 countries.

Clive Thompson and I are two of those lucky folks.

Thompson began blogging during his 2002-2003 fellowship year because he missed the discipline of writing every day. Knight fellows are urged not to commit journalism during the program, and instead to gorging themselves in the infinite candy stores called MIT and Harvard.

He blogged about cool stuff encountered during classes, guest lectures and field trips (including a first-hand look at health care in Cuba). Pretty soon Thompson came to view the blog as his “outboard brain” – a lasting repository for his thoughts, even the ones he otherwise forgot.

Five years later, Thompson still averages two posts a week – typically inspired by what he reads in scientific journals. What he writes has little in common with the unhinged raving that has given blogging a bad name. Thompson typically spends about 30 minutes thinking about what he’s read, sampling additional sources to get a better handle on what caught his eye in the first place. The writing takes another 45 minutes or so.

“Blogging has made me a better writer,” Thompson said. “It gives me a chance to practice finding the “aha” moment and it keeps me hunting for new material because the blog is hungry.” The blog, in turn, feeds the work that pays the bills.

“It serves as an intellectual calling card for editors, a place where they can see the breadth of my interests,” he said. Sometimes blogging helps him refine ideas that will later turn into stories; sometimes the exercise “helps me discover what I’m interested in when I don’t have to please an editor.”

Like all writers, Thompson has bleak moments when he doesn’t have a story idea in his head but needs to pitch an editor. Desperate, he scrolls through his “outboard brain” until a story idea surfaces from the archived posts.

Some of the blog’s value is more “cognitive” than commercial. “It provides a lasting record of what I’ve been thinking about,” Thompson said. “It reminds me of what I’ve forgotten.”

Thompson also touted the social benefits of the blog for a guy who spends most of his time home alone, playing “Halo” to avoid filing stories. Over the years, the blog has attracted about 2,000 readers who visit and comment weekly.

“These are very smart people,” Thompson said, and without the blog he would never have found this community. If he misunderstands a technical nuance, or if he makes a mistake, loyal readers set him straight in a hurry. He sometimes “road tests” story ideas with them: if a topic resonates he’ll likely pursue it.

There are some places that www.collisiondetection.net won’t go. Thompson makes no personal disclosures, posts no family pictures or videos, tells no stories about wild nights on the town or baby’s first tooth.

“I blog to help my thinking and to improve my journalism,” Thompson said.

Judging by the results, it works for him.

Saturday, February 2, 2008

Mental dynamite

Last night I saw a 2006 movie called "Accepted." The premise is that a high school kid creates a fake college to pacify his status-conscious parents, who've flipped at the news that he was rejected by every college where he applied. So Bartelby and his friends create a logo and website for South Harmon Institute of Technology. One thing leads to another and pretty soon the fake college has a real campus peopled with hundreds of other supposed rejects.

Of course the forces of darkness try to bring down the operation. But Bartelby counters by arguing that the key to real learning is picking something you care passionately about and pursuing it on your own.

I couldn't agree more.

And that's what a writing course like this one is really about. When you are drawn to a story, and set out to tell it accurately and well, you're saying "this is what I most want to learn right now." Then you make it happen, just like one of the characters in "Accepted" whose goal was to blow things up with his mind.

Monday, January 21, 2008

My secret love affair with Judah Folkman

Dr. Judah Folkman, one of the world’s most creative and important cancer researchers, died in the Denver airport on January 15. I heard the news early the next morning on NPR and immediately turned to the obituary in the New York Times.

To be honest, we were together only four times in 17 years.

But that was enough.

In 1995, I met with Judah Folkman at the insistence of my boss, the publisher of the Harvard Health Letter, who thought there would be no harm in having Harvard faculty put their names on articles actually written by science journalists. I opposed this radical change in editorial practice, and the publisher and I agreed that trying out the idea on Judah would decide the matter.

No way, he said. It would be wrong to take credit for someone else’s work. So our big story about angiogenesis research, a field he pioneered, ran with the byline of the person who reported and wrote the article.

He was an honorable man.

Six years later, Judah’s work had become incredibly famous and my friend Bob Cooke published Dr. Folkman’s War, an award-winning account of how a surgeon became one of the world’s leading vascular biologists. There was a book release party for Bob at Boston Children’s Hospital, Judah’s home institution, and a large and festive crowd gathered on a wintry night to toast Bob’s accomplishment.

To everyone’s surprise, Judah took the microphone and read a biography of Bob Cooke that he had prepared for the occasion. The subject of the book lionized its author.

He was a generous man.

In 2004, we met again at a hotel near Washington’s Dulles Airport. Judah was chairing a panel evaluating proposals from young scientists competing for large awards for breast cancer research. These panels typically consist solely of faculty members from medical schools or universities.

In this case, however, Congress required that “consumers and their representatives” help decide. So the group included three breast cancer survivors, all of them powerhouse advocates in their home states, and two science writers.

Some of the academic reviewers expressed displeasure by interrupting us when we spoke, and they were especially dismissive of the advocates. Again and again, Judah stepped in.

He would not allow anyone to disrespect anyone else.

Our paths crossed again in New Orleans last November, where Judah was the keynote speaker for the American Academy of Ophthalmology and I was accompanying graduate students reporting on the meeting. We had a chance to renew old acquaintance just minutes before he took the stage.

He was expected to come to UGA this spring, his first visit ever, to give a lecture. Now that’s out of the question and so is a Nobel Prize, for which the dead aren’t eligible.

He was so alive when we saw him in New Orleans last fall, cracking jokes and showing photos of his granddaughter while describing decades of work that revolutionized treatment for macular degeneration in addition to helping thousands of cancer patients. Judah’s discoveries led to the development of drugs for macular degeneration that some ophthalmologists rate as the most significant non-surgical advance in their field. To them, he was like a god.

But that’s not right. This son of a Cleveland rabbi was not a god. More than any other great physician-researcher I have ever known, he was something better.

The Yiddish word is mensch.