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Degree program bridges gap between reporters and researchers

By Leyla Kokmen

From eNews, January 27, 2005

With the public talking about such things as infectious disease outbreaks and the rising number of uninsured, health news is increasingly important today. But for reporters, these complicated stories can be a challenge to cover intelligently and accurately.

Enter the University of Minnesota's master of arts in health journalism, an innovative program launched in 2003. The concept behind the degree, which can be completed in 12 months, is to provide mid-career journalists and public health professionals the tools they need to be better reporters and communicators.

"We need more and better-trained journalists who see a bigger picture and know enough to set the agenda and hold up an objective mirror to society's needs," says Gary Schwitzer, an assistant professor in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication who helped develop the program. A seasoned journalist who worked at CNN and MayoClinic.com before coming to the University, Schwitzer has seen too many health reports that exaggerate research findings or only shallowly explore health policy.

"We need the ability to evaluate studies," says Schwitzer. "We need context."

To accomplish this goal, the health journalism curriculum is broken into two tracks: The journalists take public health courses in biostatistics, epidemiology, and environmental health. The public health professionals take journalism courses in news reporting, writing, and ethics. Then all students come together for seminars that integrate both perspectives to explore current health news coverage and topics.

"No matter from what direction you come at this, you'll end up at the same point," says John Finnegan, Jr., interim dean of the School of Public Health and health journalism faculty member. "The public health folks will be better communicators, and the journalists will do a far better job in reporting because of this new background."

Student Amy Mertens came from public health--specifically the SPH's epidemiology major. She looked to the health journalism program as a way to develop her writing skills. "I loved to write and never really pursued that in college. It got brushed aside in my biology and chemistry studies," says Mertens. "This was a chance to do what I hadn't done, while incorporating my background in public health. I think the flexibility makes me more marketable."

As a managing editor at MayoClinic.com, Greg Turosak often finds himself hit by a barrage of health information. He enrolled in the program in order to systematically learn the fundamentals of public health.

"If you don't have much background in the field it might be easy to be impressed that there is a study and not ask the right questions," Turosak explains. "This curriculum really shows you here's what you look for: These are the skills you apply to determine if it's good or bad, old or new, a big deal or a little deal."

For more information, see Health Journalism.

Leyla Kokmen graduated from the program in the spring of 2004.

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