Talk to 10 medical journalists and you’ll find 10 different career paths. Common to most medical reporters is a love for writing and a deep interest in medicine and science. But how does someone prepare for a career in this field, a hybrid of science and art?
It’s really the same problem that the late and great physician essayist Lewis Thomas wrote about in 1978 for The New England Journal of Medicine. Only then Thomas was talking about pre-medical students. As he noted in his essay, “How to Fix the Premedical Curriculum,” the problem with many pre-medical students (and, dare I say, many doctors) is that they don’t study enough literature, language and history. Thomas’s proposal was to study classical Greek as “the centerpiece of undergraduate education …. The capacity to read Homer’s language closely enough to sense the terrifying poetry in some of the lines could serve as a shrewd test for the qualities of mind and character needed in a physician.”
Now I’m not proposing that aspiring medical journalists study Homer, although a little poetry can go a long way in a story. The theme here is that the best way to prepare for a career in medical journalism (as Thomas proposed for medicine) is to gain an appreciation for the poetry of language. So if you are a college student and want to be a medical journalist, take courses in the humanities (English, literature, foreign languages, history) as well as basic science courses in biology, chemistry, genetics and physics. The best preparation to be a journalist—any kind of journalist—is to read voraciously and write prolifically. Subscribe to at least one newspaper (in addition to the five you follow on the Web). Read a variety of magazines. If you don’t have a pile of reading material at your bedside, ask yourself if you really want to be a journalist. Oh yes, and read books. Books about medicine and science are good, but don’t limit yourself to that field. Finally, be sure you have an English and a medical dictionary (I prefer Stedman’s) handy at all times. Words are the clay you work with, so choose them carefully.
Beyond words lies knowledge. An understanding of medical science is what separates medical journalists from general assignment reporters. “At its best, journalism mediates between the worlds of expertise and general knowledge,” Lee C. Bollinger, president of Columbia University, wrote in his 2003 Journalism Task Force Statement. “To do that well—to write for the present and to weave in broader meaning—is remarkably difficult. A necessary element is substantive knowledge, the kind of knowledge you cannot just pick up in the course of doing a story.”
What Bollinger is saying—and I agree—is that to really own the medical beat, you need to know the subject matter. You don’t need to be a scientist or a doctor, but you do need to understand how scientists think and be able to translate their jargon and their ideas into simple English.
So let’s jump ahead. You’re already a journalist, maybe a general assignment reporter with an interest in medicine and science. Or a health care provider who feels your creative energies are stifled by the tedium of daily practice. In other words, you’re thinking about becoming a medical journalist.
The first question you might ask is whether to pursue post-graduate medical journalism training. The answer is, “It depends.” If you’re a general assignment reporter with no background in the sciences, then a master’s course of study in medical journalism might make sense. If you’re in the health care field with no prior journalistic experience, then you’ll need to learn how to write for the popular media. The advantage here lies with the journalist. If you already are a skilled reporter and writer, the transition to medical journalism should be relatively easy. Enrolling in a medical journalism program makes sense if you want to use the opportunity to deepen your background in health sciences and increase your knowledge of public health.
If you’re already in the health care field and want to retool, that’s a lot more difficult, especially if you’ve had limited writing or reporting experience. If you’re a doctor or nurse and fantasize about becoming the next Larry Altman or Atul Gawande, then start writing. Take a journalism course at your local community college or university. Submit articles to your local newspaper. Or apprentice yourself to a producer or reporter at your local television station. The bottom line is that if you’re a health care provider with little reporting experience then you must develop your journalistic skills. There’s no substitute for hours spent in the field gathering information, interviewing sources, and writing good copy.
Medical Journalism Programs
For some individuals, matriculating at a graduate-level medical journalism program is the way to go. In our master’s program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, about half of the entering students have worked as a full-time newspaper reporter or freelance magazine writer for at least one or more years after college. A few students have entered without formal journalism education or reporting experience. About half of the students have majored in a science-related field. Interestingly, I have received several inquiries from physicians who want to either switch careers or pursue a combined career in medicine and medical journalism. So far, none has applied.
If you have some writing experience and decide to pursue a post-graduate program, what should you look for? First, make sure the people who will teach you have worked in the field. Second, talk to enrolled students and ask them what they’re learning. If they don’t mention “writing” in the first few sentences, then look elsewhere. As for the course curriculum, make sure you’ll have lots of writing practice with teachers who are willing and available to critique your work. Be sure courses train you to write for a variety of media including print, broadcast (television and radio), and the Web. Inquire whether the program offers courses in public health (including epidemiology) so you’ll know how to interpret and evaluate medical studies and put research findings in context. Check out the syllabi for the medical journalism courses offered. Make sure you’ll read some of the best writers in the field—Oliver Sacks, Lewis Thomas, Randy Shilts, Jon Franklin, and Laurie Garrett, to name just a few.
If you’re broadcast-oriented, make sure your program offers courses in print journalism. If you’re print-oriented, be sure to take a broadcast course. Some of my first-year master’s students in medical television reporting were sure they wanted to be print journalists until they produced their first medical television report. Then, some of them realized the power of the broadcast media to put a “face” on their medical stories. We’re all aware of the limitations of the 90-second television package replete with eight-second sound bites and simple story lines, but don’t underestimate the poetry of good television storytelling. You can have enormous impact. A survey conducted in 1997 by Roper Starch Worldwide, Inc. for the National Health Council and PBS’s “HealthWeek” showed that Americans rate television ahead of health professionals, magazines, journals and newspapers as their principal source for most medical information.
Lastly, ask yourself if you really want to embrace the life of a medical reporter. There will be hours spent analyzing generally poorly written medical journal articles. You will place repeated phone calls to health professionals who often don’t want to talk to you. There will be a lack of appreciation from newspaper editors and television news directors and not enough column inches or broadcast airtime to adequately tell your story. And the pay will be not at all commensurate with your skills or level of education.
If none of the above deters you, if you find science and medicine inherently fascinating, and if you write just for the joy of turning a good phrase, then medical journalism is for you.
Thomas Linden, M.D., is director of the Medical Journalism Program and Glaxo Wellcome Distinguished Professor of Medical Journalism at the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Linden was the first health and science correspondent for CNBC, medical reporter for KRON-TV in San Francisco, medical editor of Fox 11 News in Los Angeles, and co-anchor of “Physicians’ Journal Update” on Lifetime Medical Television.