- University of Georgia
- Athens, GA
- Personal Website
Patricia Thomas is expanding multimedia publishing opportunities for graduate students, training working journalists for the digital age, and conducting research that helps channel the flow of health news and information to medically underserved communities in America’s south.
Patricia Thomas has written about medicine, public health and life science research for more than 30 years. She has held the Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism since 2005.
As a result of the teaching and research by the Knight chair, the University of Georgia will become a national resource for health and medical journalism. The chair will share innovative teaching, lead the field in commentary and, with funding provided by the university, establish a master’s degree in health and medical journalism. Using case studies, the chair will help improve the flow of public health news in the impoverished area called the Southern Black Belt. (2004)
I. Approximately 700 health reporters and editors participated in the 2012 Association of Health Care Journalists national meeting in Atlanta, held in April and co-sponsored by the University of Georgia. Of these, approximately 150 participated in a one-day program of digital and social media workshops organized and moderated by Knight Chair Patricia Thomas. AHCJ executives rated this as an exceptionally high level of participation and called the evaluation scores above average. Many others participated in sessions featuring UGA health and medical researchers; an HMJ graduate student organized and moderated one of the science sessions. Thomas initiated and coordinated UGA’s sponsorship of this event, a year-long commitment. She used $5,000 in Knight Chair funds to leverage an additional $35,000 in funding from six other campus units, including the GHSU-UGA Medical Partnership and the College of Public Health.
II. The graduate program in health and medical journalism is gaining recognition and impact, due mainly to the excellence and marketability of its graduates. The employment rate among graduates since the program’s approval in 2009 is near 100 percent. Although one owns a dance studio and two are pursuing doctoral degrees (both in fields related to health communication), the rest are using their public health, medical and science communication skills in journalism, government, foundation or private industry settings. Of the seven who earned HMJ degrees in May 2012, one was hired outright by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and another won a prestigious one-year fellowship there; one has completed an internship at NIH and joined the health research team at Pew; one is a science writer for a hospital and another coordinates social media programs for hospitals and physician groups. Buoyed by this, we expect to increase cohort size and are aggressively recruiting students with stronger science preparation. This fall Thomas, graduates of the HMJ program and current graduate students have participated in five career/grad school fairs at universities and colleges in Georgia. More outreach efforts are scheduled before the application season closes.
III. Content generated by health and medical journalism graduate students continues to provide a steady flow of quality health, healthcare and medical news to communities in Georgia and beyond, helping fulfill one of the chair’s original missions. In the past year, students have produced 11 stories, 9 of them with video components, for www.georgiahealthnews.com. Nine more stories have gone out statewide on the news service that is part of Georgia’s Partner Up for Public Health Campaign. These are typically picked up by 2-4 news organizations. In one case, a student reporter was invited to do a radio interview about her story, which examined the overlap between economic development and health disparities in two adjacent Georgia counties. Over the past two years, advanced HMJ students have produced 47 short video documentaries (most packaged with print stories) for www.medschoolproject.com. These stories document the impact of a new medical school on the lives of Northeast Georgia communities, especially medically underserved populations, on local doctors and hospitals, and on the university. In May 2012, two 30-minute anthologies of these documentaries, edited and narrated by HMJ graduate students, were broadcast four times each on Georgia Public Television.
Question-and-Answer with Knight Chair
Teaching the profession: What do you do to bring the newsroom into your classroom? How do your students learn about current journalism practices?
My classroom functions as a newsroom where professional quality is expected and usually delivered. Some sessions are didactic: I teach the craft of reporting and writing, and we have briefings and Q&A sessions not with politicians, but with experts on healthcare policies and systems, evidence-based medicine, epidemiology, and various research and clinical specialties.
None of this interferes with the constant pitching of story ideas, preparation of drafts and rough-cuts, peer editing sessions, crewing for one another on video shoots, joining forces to master Final Cut Pro X or content management issues, and selling of work for pay. I work individually with students to develop strengths in critical thinking, reporting, storytelling and entrepreneurial savvy. Students learn to report news at scientific meetings by traveling, along with me, to cover a major conference in Atlanta. Nationally known journalists, authors and television producers are frequent guests and these visitors critique multimedia packages produced by advanced HMJ students. Grad students are expected to join the National Association of Science Writers and the Association of Health Care Journalists, and they learn much about current practices by participating in distance learning sessions, conferences and workshops provided by these groups.
Media Innovation: Do you think journalism programs should keep up with the quickening pace of change in the industry? How can they? What is your approach?
Of course journalism schools should make their best effort to stay abreast of what’s happening in the news and media industries. Realistically, curriculum change being what it is, in aggregate we are probably always going to be a bit behind. Plus none of us has a crystal ball. Two days ago, I returned from tech sessions at the Journalism and Women Symposium convinced that every one of my grad students should take an introductory programming course in the computer science department. The next day, I read a story in the New York Times saying that the next version of Excel will have built in tools for manipulating and querying massive datasets.
Although schools of journalism may never be as nimble as we would like, that doesn’t justify plodding along at the same old pace. Each year I’ve incorporated new tools into my courses. Last summer I sharpened my Final Cut Pro X skills at the Knight Digital Media workshop at UC Berkeley, and immediately came back and switched my student to that software. They are grateful and seem not to miss FCP-7 (except for the ones who were really good at it).
At the individual level, what matters is to stay alert and do what we can to put students in touch with tool developers and digital journalists who are remaking news. Participation in the MIT Civic Media conference, where I’ve had the chance to talk with some of the Knight Innovation winners, has been eye-opening for me these past two years. The young people I met in Cambridge inspired me to send some of my students to SXSW Interactive, where new things happen. Four of my grad students went to Austin in 2012, returning to create a stir by teaching their classmates about cartooning and other novel, low-cost ways to create infographics. One of the students won a free trip to SXSW2013, and she is planning to take a classmate. My students also pick up new tricks, not to mention inspiration, at Science Online, the annual confab of science bloggers held at North Carolina State University, and from database reporting trainings offered by the Association of Health Care Journalists. So my approach is to get them out of the classroom and into conferences or hackathons where they will learn from people on the front lines.
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