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Patricia Thomas

Knight Chair in Health and Medical Journalism
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.

Grant Background

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)

Recent Activities

An unprecedented collaboration between the health and medical journalism graduate program and UGA’s computer science department created the first graduate-level data journalism course offered at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication. As a result, six of seven students who graduated from the HMJ program in May 2014 had successfully completed this course and five of them are now working as science/health/medical journalists or as health communication specialists. (Three students who completed the course will earn HMJ degrees in May 2015.)

Knight Chair Patricia Thomas created JOUR 7800: Data Journalism by investing $5,000 from the Knight Chair budget and attracting equal support from the office of UGA’s president. She engaged computer science instructor Dr. Chris Plaue and Grady College senior Lindsey Cook (a Google Scholarship winner double majoring in journalism and computer science) to design the course. It covered data acquisition and cleaning, programming fundamentals (variables, control structures, functions), web development (HTML/CSS), and data presentation (UX design, JavaScript, HTML, CSS and tools for making interactives such as TileMill). Thomas participated in every class meeting, contributing as needed. Guest speakers included experts on Freedom of Information Act requests and Georgia’s open records law, data security, and data-based reporting at a national newspaper (The Washington Post).

An evaluation component was built into the course and Plaue and Cook wrote an article analyzing the pilot version and recommending improvements. This has been accepted for presentation at the Association for Computing Machinery (ACM) conference on computer science education (SIGCSE) in March 2015. Journalism faculty will use their findings to shape coding and data visualization courses included in Grady College’s new undergraduate curriculum.

HMJ wrapped up their most significant multimedia work, The Med School Project, in May 2014 after four years of extraordinary productivity. Knight Chair Thomas conceived the idea about six months before HMJ graduate students began documenting the launch of a new medical campus in August 2010. Since the first entering class of 45 future doctors enrolled four years ago, HMJ students with video cameras have documented every step of their development. This year the fourth HMJ team recorded the excitement of Match Day in March and the graduation in May.

All told, HMJ graduate students have produced more than 80 multimedia story packages about the birth and growth of the GRU-UGA Medical Partnership. Most of these are available at Some spotlight the medical students and faculty, but many explore the impact of the new medical school on medically underserved people in Athens and on local clinics and hospitals. These stories have been published by Georgia Health News, the Athens Banner Herald and OnlineAthens, The Flagpole, and Athens Patch. Kaiser Health News and many Georgia news organizations have picked up Med School Project stories through Georgia Health News’ content-sharing network. 

The Med School Project’s spring 2014 team produced a half-hour documentary about Match Day that aired statewide on WUGA-TV in June. This is the fourth half-hour feature generated by students and shown on cable or broadcast TV.

Thomas expanded her efforts to help researchers communicate more effectively with people outside their fields. During the 2013-2014 academic year she taught sessions on clear communication during spring and fall one-day workshops for groups of graduate students and faculty members. She was also an instructor for GRSC 8200, an eight-week course offered twice each year to PhD candidates from research disciplines across the university. Each of these events reaches approximately 15 participants.

Thomas and UGA plant geneticist Wayne Parrott, who met through UGA’s research communication network, were invited to co-teach a symposium on “Effectively Communicating Science” at the 2014 World Forum on In Vitro Biology. This joint meeting of the Society for In Vitro Biology and the Society for Cryobiology drew about 500 highly specialized researchers from around the world to Savannah, GA, in June 2014. Thomas and Parrott used live tweeting, videos, and game-show tactics to motivate participants to explain their own work – minus jargon and acronyms – for audiences as diverse as elementary school students and readers of the AARP Magazine. Nearly 100 graduate students, post-docs and faculty participated in this evening session, their inhibitions diminished by an earlier reception.

•  What are the most promising changes you see in journalism education as a whole, and why do you think they are hopeful?

As recent developments at Grady College illustrate, the old walls are coming down. Galvanized by a spring 2014 directive from UGA’s new Provost, journalism and telecommunications faculty worked all summer to develop a new curriculum that provides strong core courses for all undergraduate journalism students. Ethics, information gathering, reporting and writing across platforms are the heart of the curriculum. Advanced courses give students the chance to build strengths in areas that interest them most. And no one graduates without successfully completing three out of four skills courses: video production, photojournalism, graphics or coding.  UGA is certainly not the only university to abandon an old-fashioned, platform-based curriculum. This seems to be happening everywhere.

As part of the curriculum revision, we surveyed industry leaders who often hire Grady College graduates. They are recruiting young people with high ethical standards, strong reporting skills, strong writing skills, and the ability to shoot and edit video. We believe the new undergraduate course of study will deliver all this and much more.

At the master’s level, we have also made an adjustment. Although HMJ graduate students are trained to be professional journalists, jobs in traditional watchdog journalism are scarce. While some of our graduates work for news organizations, including niche publications for professional audiences, many others work as news writers for universities, medical associations, or health care organizations.  The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has recruited five HMJ graduates in the past three years – three of them engaged in Ebola-related work right now.

The reality is that young professionals are functioning as writers in institutional public relations settings. We now have a course of study designed to prepare them for this work. The new “Health Media and Communications” M.A. concentration brings together core courses in health and medical journalism with core courses in either public relations or advertising. It is important to prepare students for the jobs that exist, not the jobs we wish existed. This new option is a step toward that. 

      Give us an example of a media company or organization that you see doing innovative journalism with impact. How do you use this example in your teaching?

Legacy media in the United States have an unequaled reservoir of journalism talent and resources and still produce superior work. The New York Times is a leader in web video, interactive graphics, data visualization, and value-added storytelling. National Public Radio does an extraordinary job covering science, health and medicine using sound, text and pictures. NPR and the New York Times follow give prominence to global health stories that are often overlooked by lesser organizations. If my students aren’t addicted to these news sources when they came to me, they are by the time they graduate.