A Program That Turns Doctors into Muckrakers



Robert Steiner

By Robert Steiner

Published on 21st. November, 2017

For years, the growing traffic in Canadian high school girls — picked up in Toronto’s suburbs and pushed into the sex trade — was a secret story. Then, last winter, a journalist joined police investigating the traffickers and started speaking with the middle class teenagers who were their victims. On January 29, Seema Marwaha broke the story for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.

Dr. Marwaha wasn’t part of CBC’s investigative team. She wasn’t even a normal reporter. She’s a doctor. My colleagues and I at the University of Toronto were in the midst of training her to work as a journalist. She’d heard about the trafficking problem through her work in the community.

The University of Toronto has now trained 17 doctors and health professionals along with 58 other specialists to work as journalists, some of whom have quickly become award-winning reporters. As their bylines and credits pile up, we’re starting to ask: What more can this new kind of beat reporter do to support investigative journalism’s new golden age?

The emerging ecosystem of collaborations, outlets and funding models convening this month in Johannesburg for the Global Investigative Journalism Conference (#GIJC17) is edging towards a talent crunch. Over the next decade, increasingly complex investigations will need a pipeline of journalists with deep subject matter knowledge, but most journalism schools are still turning out generalists who, unlike reporters of the past, probably won’t even keep staff jobs long enough to learn a beat.

Five years ago, we launched a new kind of journalism school to fill the hole: The Fellowship in Global Journalism at the University of Toronto’s Munk School of Global Affairs. We only recruit subject-matter experts, few of whom have any journalism experience. Over eight months we usher them into careers as independent journalists by mentoring them closely as they cover their beats for our media partners around the world.

We’ve graduated 75 with 15 more in the pipeline this year — a mix of doctors, lawyers, religion scholars, scientists, architects, military officers, economists and others from around the world. Their expertise yields fast impact. Before even graduating, our fellows have broken 698 stories for our media partners – 19 outlets that now include The Washington Post, VICE, Quartz and The Boston Globe – along with other outlets like The New York Times and The Guardian.

Their performance after graduation underscores the hunger for more specialized reporters. The Dallas Morning News hired one public health doctor after our fellowship who went on to receive an Emmy, a Knight Fellowship and was a Pulitzer finalist — all within her first three years in the newsroom. Within a year of graduating, a Canadian criminologist we taught received a National Magazine Award honorable mention for his first investigative story. A climate change engineer we recruited from Colombia has become one of his country’s leading environment reporters.

Even as other J-Schools struggle to find internships for their graduates, many of our small band have been snapped up by The Financial Times, The Wall Street Journal, the CBC and VICE – as well as a think tank in India and the Dutch foreign ministry. Others mix their professional day jobs with journalism, like The New Yorker’s Atul Gawande.

New investigative outfits should be working with them, too.

Consider the 17 doctors and health professionals we’ve turned into reporters. It turns out that we launched our program at the very moment that many med schools were trying to change the way young doctors work. They now teach “narrative medicine” so doctors can better understand patients through their personal stories, and “knowledge translation” so health scientists can communicate new discoveries in a way that actually changes health care. Canadian medical schools even encourage fourth-year residents to take time away from the clinic altogether in order to study some public dimension of their work – like epidemiology, policy or journalism.

This article was first published in GIJN and is reproduced here with due permission. You can read the full extract here




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