Turning Journalists on to Health and Science Reporting

Dates of Project: September 1, 2008–August 31, 2014

An RWJF-supported program at Columbia University trains journalists to bring depth and perspective to science and health reporting. This Progress Report examines how the program is doing as the current grant enters its sixth and final year.

Description: News accounts of scientific and health issues frequently lack depth and perspective. “Journalism as a profession reflects a larger problem in American society, which is an insufficient understanding of the principles, practices, and culture of the sciences,” wrote Columbia in its proposal to RWJF. “When an issue is given poor coverage, the result can be—and has been—bad public policy.”

The Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism in New York offers the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation Program in Health and Science Journalism, a one-year Master of Arts degree program. It prepares young and mid-career journalists to interpret scientific and medical developments with a sense of context and history—and to translate these complex issues into compelling journalism.

The program’s centerpiece is a year-long seminar that explores scientific and medical topics and analyzes writing skills necessary for successful magazine-length pieces. At the conclusion, each student produces a 10,000-word long-form article (à la The New Yorker) examining a specific issue or development. The curriculum also includes classes in the journalism school and elective science and health-related courses elsewhere in the university.

“…writing about technical subjects should be just as colorful and as pleasurable to read as writing about anything else.”–Jonathan Weiner, co-teacher of MA health/science seminar

To Date: RWJF has supported four MA health/science classes, totaling 43 graduates, since 2009. The school does not have a formal alumni tracking system, but school official Tali Woodward says her “off the top of my head” count shows:

  • At least 20 of the 27 students who graduated in the first three years have gone into science or health journalism in some fashion.
  • Of the 16 who just graduated (in 2013), 10 immediately found positions that allowed them to practice science and health journalism, although a number of the positions are short-term internships.

“I realized quite quickly I didn’t have the scientific background to get in as deeply as I wanted to. So that’s why I applied to the MA program.”—Tali Woodward, alumna

“I didn’t want a suck-your-thumb-and-think-big-thoughts fellowship program. I wanted to learn something new.”—Dan Egan, alumnus

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Columbia J School training journalists in complex issues in health & science with #RWJF fellowship program