A 'Candy Store' for Reporters
By Harrison Wein
On the Front Page...
Seven top journalists from around the country spent 3 weeks at NIH in March immersing themselves in the scientific culture they usually see from the outside.
They were here as medical science fellows sponsored by the University of Maryland's Knight Center for Specialized Journalism, funded by the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation. This is the third time journalists have visited NIH under the program.
Carol Horner, director of the Knight Center, said, "The idea behind the Knight Center in general is to provide opportunities for reporters to really learn something in depth about the subject areas that they cover." She said NIH was an obvious choice for journalists to pursue independent study in cutting-edge medical and scientific research. "NIH has a collection of the very best thinkers in so many areas, all in one place," she noted. "It's like a candy store for people who are interested in health and science. It really doesn't get any better."
OD's Office of Communications and Public Liaison organized the program on campus in an effort led by Bobbi Bennett, chief of the Science Communications Branch. OCPL and communication directors from potential host institutes selected the best candidates based on each journalist's application and proposed course of independent study. The host institutes' information offices provided the fellows with offices and helped them make the most of their stay, arranging interviews, laboratory tours and whatever else they needed.
The 2002 Fellows were Susan Dominus, contributing editor for Glamour and New York magazines (hosted by NIAMS); John Fauber, reporter for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (NINDS); Debra Goldschmidt, assignment editor for CNN Medical News (jointly hosted by NIDDK, NHGRI and NINDS); Tom Paulson, reporter for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer (NIAID); Cheryl Platzman Weinstock, freelance writer (NHLBI); Rita Rubin, reporter for USA Today (NCI and NHLBI); and Rick Weiss, staff writer for the Washington Post (NHGRI and NIAID). Several fellows also spent time with NIA's information office and scientists.
Released from deadline pressures, the fellows were free to pursue their interests. Weinstock, who came to study heart disease in women, said, "The thought of spending 3 weeks with no distraction and unlimited access to researchers and their work was incredibly appealing. It's every reporter's dream."
Most fellows came without any specific project in mind, just a general idea of what topic they wanted to pursue. Weiss chose bioterrorism and genomics. "I'm always looking for a chance to just be able to learn again for a while," he said. "Sometimes it seems like we're so busy reporting things that we don't have a chance to sit back and learn more ourselves."
"For me," Goldschmidt said, "because I can't do a story unless I have a camera, I have the opportunity to really just learn just take it all in, get hold of the big picture, grasp concepts, find out what I need to have on my radar screen to look out for." She spent her time here learning more about diabetes.
Fauber came with a very specific aim. "I had been planning to do a big project or a series of stories on new developments in neuroscience," he said. "It just seemed like this fellowship would be a great way to find out what's new and interesting, so I applied."
The fellows began their first day at a group orientation with acting NIH director Dr. Ruth Kirschstein and others. After a luncheon during which they met their institute hosts, they went off separately to their institutes. They met as a group several more times during the fellowship. OCPL arranged four seminars for them with the help of NIGMS, NINDS and NHGRI in which NIH experts spoke about post-sequencing genomics, proteomics, technology transfer and stem cells. They also took tours of the National Library of Medicine and the Clinical Center and surveyed the campus by bus.
The fellows spent the bulk of their time, however, meeting with scientists. "It's a real luxury for journalists to have an opportunity to have this kind of interaction with scientists," Rubin said. She was here studying breast cancer and hormone replacement therapy. Much of the time, she said, reporters are on deadline and need a quick comment from someone who is familiar with the study they're writing about. "That's a pretty brief conversation," she noted. But during this fellowship, Rubin said, "I've spent several hours with certain scientists."
One highlight for Paulson, who was studying infectious diseases and genomics, was a tour of NIAID's malaria vaccine development unit. "You have your little fermenting things, which reminds me of my beer-making days." He quips, "A little more sophisticated than that."
Some even had direct experience, so to speak. According to Fauber, "I got zapped with a transcranial magnetic stimulator." He joked, "I haven't been the same since. But I can't tell if I'm smarter or dumber."
Dominus, here to learn more about autoimmune diseases that affect women, said there was more to her experience than learning the science itself. "One of the best things, believe it or not, that I got out of the program was a brief education on the use of NIH's online library."
Weiss agreed. "I've been practicing using the resources at the National Library of Medicine," he said, "so I can use them more efficiently from my desk when I get back to work."
The fellowship also had more subtle benefits. "I've learned new science," Paulson said, but he considers it even more important to have gotten a better sense of NIH and the people who work here. "To have direct conversations with scientists," he said, "helps you tell a story better, just makes it personal."
Rubin said she has spoken with scientists here about what they see as problems in coverage of scientific research by general interest publications. "So that's been helpful to me too," she noted.
Virtually all the journalists are coming away from the fellowship with ideas for future stories. "I'm going home with many more stories than I ever dreamed I would leave with," Weinstock said.
Horner of the Knight Center said her organization is very happy with the way the program has turned out this year. "What we're trying to foster is a depth of perception on the part of the writer that translates into better coverage and better information provided to the public. That's the bottom line."
The fellows also have a better sense of the campus itself. "I can spend a year here if you all would let me," Goldschmidt said. "Everybody around this campus is so nice. It's not your typical D.C. atmosphere."
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