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Career Profile: 24 years of health reporting at one newspaper

Career Profile: 24 years of health reporting at one newspaper

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André Picard has an enviable and unusual journalism career. He began his professional life as a summer intern at The Globe and Mail in Canada and stayed on with the paper for 24 years.

"Yes, I have a very boring CV," Picard joked in a phone interview from Montréal.

For most of his career, he has focused on health -- not just medicine, but policy and the broader contexts in which good and poor health occur. The Public Policy Forum in Canada announced last week that Picard is the winner of this year's Hyman Solomon Award for Excellence in Public Policy Journalism. Career GPS took the occasion as an opportunity to talk to Picard about how he built his niche and helped expand the boundaries of health journalism.

This week's health media opportunities are at the end of this post. You can keep up with Career GPS by subscribing to the ReportingonHealth weekly newsletter or via RSS.

Picard has reported on everything from the AIDS movement early in his career to universal health care, infectious disease and the costs of cancer care. He has authored three health-related books and garnered many awards over the years from advocacy and policy groups, including a the prestigious National Newspaper Award for column-writing last year.

Picard answered questions about his career and offered advice to others who want to find their own health niche in journalism. The Q&A has been edited for length and clarity.

Andre Picard

What has allowed you to stay at one place for so long? Is there something about The Globe and Mail that has made it a really good place for you?

Maybe it's lack of ambition? I'm not sure. No -- I was lucky enough to start at a very good paper. To be honest, the reason I got hired had a lot to do with language. My paper is always desperate for people who can speak French and write in English so that was my way in. It was a good fit and I was happy where I was and I live in a city I like, Montréal. But a lot of it is just luck.

Do you suggest that journalists leverage language skills, especially when they're starting out?

When I go to speak to journalism students I say that it's a thousand times more important than when I began. We live in a a multicultural society in Canada and we're desperate for people who speak languages -- Mandarin, Punjabi, Urdu, you name it. It's one of the big criteria for choosing our new people now. We really need to connect with our audience. Our newsroom doesn't reflect our country anymore and we have a lot of catching up to do.

What was your beat when you started at The Globe and Mail?

Like all newcomers I just did general assignment, so I did a little bit of everything. When I was there the first summer I ended up doing a lot of courts. I was a business student, so I did a bunch of business stuff, a lot of markets.

I ended up doing health almost by accident. I started working at the start of the AIDS movement, a consumer movement with a lot of protests. Our health reporter really didn't like covering that. Health reporting has changed dramatically since I've been there and she was a traditionalist -- she only spoke to the experts, to the physicians and she only wrote about medical journals and that's how you covered health.

When you had to cover something like gay men protesting in the street, throwing blood on ministers, that's when you send the summer student out. You send them out to do the crappy assignments. So I got to know AIDS, and then it really blew up into a big story. I was very lucky that I worked at a newspaper where they said, "You have a little bit of knowledge on this. Run with it." I've continued since then. So I guess my way in was the AIDS movement.

Do you think things like the AIDS movement have pushed health reporting to do more public health or community-oriented health stories? Or do you think it has also been a change initiated by journalists who want to cover health in a different way?

I think it's the activists -- the AIDs activists and, later, breast cancer activists -- who really forced us to say that there's more to health than father-knows-best doctors. I think we were really pushed by this consumer movement. If I had an advantage it was that I didn't come from a health background so I didn't have that bias. I quite was happy to say that a consumer point-of-view seemed sensible.

I was lucky all along that my paper was pretty open-minded. Things changed and they went with the flow. I remember writing one of my first stories about a guy in the hospital with AIDS. They put a sign on his door that said "toxic" and health care workers wouldn't go into his room. The story caused a lot of furor. A lot of health professionals were angry, saying, "How dare you write a story like that. That's not how you write a health story, by bad-mouthing doctors." To me that was a watershed -- just a minor story, but it was a change to see health as a human right and health has a consumer issue, rather than health as strictly a medical issue.

Your title now is public health reporter? Is that something that came with your approach to health reporting?

It came with my approach. We also have a medical reporter, so we wanted to distinguish that there's something beyond traditional medical reporting. Medicine is really important and she's a great reporter, but we wanted to get to the notion that there was more to it than that. So I do a lot of health policy, a lot of infectious disease -- stuff that's not necessarily medicine-oriented.

How do you define public health reporting? What are its boundaries?

We're pretty loosey-goosey about the definitions. Jokingly I say that I say that the medical reporter covers research on rats and I cover research on people. But it's not strictly defined. I don't write about rat studies and I don't do the hardcore medicine. You could say that I don't go watch brain surgery, but I've done that. We spell each other off too; if the medical reporter is working on something else, I'll cover medicine if something big comes up, and vice versa.

We also have an environment reporter and we used to have a social policy reporter. So it really depends on how things are split up. But I take pretty broad definitions, especially in my column. I'll write about social issues and the environment -- I have broad breadth to write about what I like.

Did you have to do any convincing in your newsroom to get yourself to the position where you could have these broad boundaries?

Like any reporter and any beat reporter, you have to fight for your real estate. That's what we all do all the time. The advantage I had is that there's really an appetite for this. Canadians are sort of obsessed with their health system. It's something that helps define us -- our medicare system, free universal health care. What we found was that for a long time we were just covering medicine and the way we were covering health policy was with partisan politics, which was largely rhetorical. So there was an appetite for real information beyond the political rhetoric and beyond what happens when you get cancer. There is a lot of other stuff people want to know about. So I just had to make that case with my bosses and they were quite open to it, to be honest.

How many books have you written? Did writing books give you space to explore something that you couldn't do at the newspaper, or does it give you extra caché as a writer?

I've written four -- three health books and one humor book. I don't usually count the humor book. I haven't done one for a while -- I decided they took too much of my free time and I wanted to wait for my kids to grow up. I wrote my first book in 1996.

To me it was sort of an offshoot. I did a book on the impact of charities and community-building. That one was almost like a sabbatical. I had a fellowship and a year off to do that book. It was a change of pace and I had a fun time. I did a book about tainted blood, which was an offshoot of work I did at the paper for a long time. It was a big health policy story, a big political story in our country. I covered it for years and thought that it needed to be brought together as one story in a book. And then I did a book about nursing. To me, the nursing book was different -- I talk to nurses all the time and they're always present, but I never really write about them directly. So I just did a book about what nurses do and I had lots of fun doing that. But it wasn't something I could really do on the job.

I don't know about caché. In Canada, you don't really make much money off a book -- I think I probably lost money taking time off to write my books. So I guess caché is something -- it's not cash, just caché.

You've gotten a lot of awards from advocacy groups. How do you define reporting versus advocacy? Where do you draw the line between those two things?

I don't see myself as an advocate. I think the reason I've gotten those awards is because I'm one of a few people who write about those issues in a broad way. I'm one of the few people who write about cancer not just as a multiplication of cells, but what happens to people when they have cancer and run out of money. I write a lot about the practical stuff -- so I think that's what attracts the attention of advocacy groups. I don't see myself as an advocate for any particular illness or cause. But I see myself as an advocate for good health policy, and those necessarily overlap.

Some of these groups are shocked that I'll write a lot of columns about cancer and then I'll write one very critical of cancer groups. They'll say, "I thought you were on my side." And I say, no, I'm on the side of good public health. When consumer groups fail, that needs to be exposed as just much as when governments fail. Groups don't always understand that -- but that's the life of a journalist.

What is your best advice for people who want carve out a niche for themselves the way you have?

To be honest, I think it's really difficult today. There's a real lack of appetite in our employers to have specialized reporters. They just want people to pump stuff out by the hour for the web. On my bad days, I say I don't know what advice I can give. I don't think there's much hope.

On my good days, I think newspapers are going to find a niche of giving people what they can't get on the web, which is explanation and context. I tell younger people this: Get something you're passionate about and learn about it and write about it in as many ways as you can. There's always going to be an appetite for information. People who get to know about something and are passionate about it -- I think they're going to be able to carve out a niche for themselves.

Are you bullish on newspapers or is another medium the way to go for a young reporter?

It depends on the day of the week. Some days I despair that everything is going to be 134-character Twitter posts for the rest of my life. On the good days, I do think that the pendulum is going to swing back to the middle and newspapers are going to become more explanatory and contextual. That's the stuff that I love to do and that will be great. But I think getting there is going to be a bumpy road and it's hard for younger people to start there.

Health Media Opportunities

New Job and Internship Listings

Blogger, Organic Authority (via ProBlogger)
Location: Telecommute
Status: Freelance
Medium: Online

Content Manager, MeYou Health
Location: Boston, MA
Status: Contract
Medium: Online

Director, New Media, CareFirst Blue Cross Blue Shield
Location: Owings Mills, MD
Status: Full Time
Medium: Marketing

Editor, UCSF Medical Center Memory and Aging Center
Location: San Francisco, CA
Status: Part Time, one year contract
Medium: Communications

Writer, UCSF Medical Center
Location: San Francisco, CA
Status: Full Time
Medium: Online

Healthcare Writer, (via craigslist)
Location: Palo Alto, CA
Status: Contract
Medium: Marketing, Online

Reporter, FDANews (via JournalismJobs)
Location: Falls Church, VA
Status: Full Time
Medium: Trade Publication

Senior Editor - Healthcare, WebMD the Magazine
Location: Atlanta, GA
Status: Full Time
Medium: Magazine

Writer/Editor, DecisionHealth
Location: Gaithersburg, MD
Status: Full Time
Medium: Trade Publication

Fellowships, Internships and Grant Programs with Upcoming Deadlines

Online Community Building and Health Program, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: California-based bloggers and founders/top editors of online news web sites
Included: 10 fellows will receive $2,000 to support the completion of an ambitious community health news or storytelling project, expenses-paid development seminars from April 28 - May 1, 2011 & June 23 - June 25, 2011, coaching and technical assistance with reporting project.
Deadline: Feb. 7, 2011
From the Website: "USC Annenberg's California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships is launching a new program in 2011 to educate bloggers and editors of online news sites on ways to chronicle the health of their communities. At the same time, the program will help participants improve the "health" and sustainability of their own websites, with strategic and technical advice provided through a partnership with the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State. This program is co-sponsored by theOnline News Association."

National Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid six-day program in Los Angeles, $200 stipend and upon completion of what are expected to be ambitious, major fellowship projects.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "To stimulate collaboration between mainstream and ethnic media, we encourage applicants to propose a joint project for use by both media outlets. Up to two collaborators for each project may receive a stipend."

Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Grants, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to all journalist members of Center for Health Journalism Digital. Print, broadcast and new media journalists from anywhere in the United States are eligible to apply, as are all past fellows of the USC Annenberg/California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.
Included: Provides funding for proposed stories or multimedia projects that illuminate or expose critical community health or community health policy issues and acceptance to the National Health Journalism Fellowship program.
Deadline: May 2, 2011
From the Website: "Proposals can focus on a specific health topic or delve into a confluence of circumstances and conditions that impact health, including environment; social class; crime and violence; urban development; access to health resources or the lack thereof; school absenteeism; transportation or city planning, and and disparities in health. Topics that would NOT be eligible would include clinical trials, medical research, or the latest treatments for a disease or any project involving a population outside of the United States."

California Health Journalism Fellowship, USC Annenberg California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Open to professional journalists from print, broadcast, and online media in California, including freelancers. Applicants need not be full time health reporters, but they need to have a passion for health news (broadly defined).
Included: All-expenses paid seminars in Los Angeles, mentoring for completion of reporting project
Deadline: Aug. 26, 2011
From the Website: "During the Fellowship sessions, Fellows get plenty of time to discuss with experts, and with each other, strategies for covering health news with authority and sophistication. Between the two sessions and for three months after the second session, Fellows confer by phone and e-mail with veteran journalists who guide them through work on major Fellowship projects."

Awards with Upcoming Deadlines

Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism, Association of Health Care Journalists
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 on a wide range of health topics including public health, consumer health, medical research, the business of health care and health ethics, entry fee $30-$75
Award: Cash prize of $500 for first place winners in five categories, a framed certificate and complimentary lodging for two nights and registration for the annual AHCJ conference
Deadline: Jan. 28, 2011
From the Website: "The contest was created by journalists for journalists and is not influenced or funded by commercial or special-interest groups."

2011 Hillman Prizes
Eligibility: Work published in 2010 in the United States with impact on social justice or public policy
Award: $5,000 plus a certificate and travel to NYC for our reception
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "Since 1950, the Sidney Hillman Foundation has honored journalists, writers and public figures who pursue social justice and public policy for the common good."

Edward J. Meeman Award National Journalism Award in Environmental Reporting (PDF), Scripps Howard Foundation
Eligibility: $50 entry fee, open to any newspaper that published in print or online three or more times a week in 2010, television or radio station, broadcast or cable network, cable system, wire service, news syndicate, syndication or program service, and online news site. Work must have originally aired or published in 2010. No college media outlets are eligible.
Award: $10,000 and a troph
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "Honors outstanding environmental reporting. Award is given to encourage journalists to help educate the public and public officials on environmental issues. Results achieved by the reporting may be included."

GAC® National Medals & Awards, Yves O. Fortier Earth Science Journalism Award, The Canadian Science Writers' Association
Eligibility: The award shall recognize a journalist who is a resident of Canada and who has been exceptionally effective in presenting one or more earth science stories during the previous 1-3 years in one of Canada's daily or weekly newspapers or periodicals. Anyone (journalists, geoscientists or the general public) may submit a nomination for the award.
Award: The award, consisting of $1,000.00 and a framed certificate, shall be presented by a GAC®councillor at the Annual Meeting of the Canadian Science Writers' Association and shall be announced during the Annual Awards Luncheon of the Geological Association of Canada in the year following that in which the article(s) was published
Deadline: Jan. 31, 2011
From the Website: "The award is named after Yves O. Fortier, a founding member of the Geological Association of Canada and a former Director of the Geological Survey of Canada. Entries for the Yves Fortier Award deal with a broad spectrum of Earth science topics, ranging from Earth to ocean and atmosphere. They are judged on the basis of originality, clarity of interpretation, scientific accuracy and value in promoting a broader understanding of Earth sciences to the public."

Science in Society Journalism Awards, National Association of Science Writers
Eligibility: Any writer (or team) is eligible to submit one entry in each category: books, commentary or opinion, science reporting, and science reporting for a local or regional audience. Except in the book category, an entry will consist of a maximum of three articles or broadcasts on separate topics or a single series. work must be written or spoken in English, intended for the lay person, and first published or broadcast in North America between January 1 and December 31, 2010. Winners of last year's awards and individuals who have won three times are not eligible.
Award:Cash prizes of $2,500 for writing judged best in each of four categories.
Deadline: Feb. 1, 2011
From the Website: "NASW established the science in society awards to provide recognition-without subsidy from any professional or commercial interest-for investigative or interpretive reporting about the sciences and their impact on society. NASW especially encourages entries of critical, probing pieces that would not receive an award from an interest group. beginning with the first award in 1972, previous winners have demonstrated innovative reporting that goes well beyond the science itself and into the ethical problems and social implications. A committee of accomplished peers judges the entries each year."

Borlaug CAST Communication Award
Eligibility: Nominated scientists, engineers, technologists, or other professionals working in the agricultural, environmental, or food sectors
Award: Bronze sculpture
Deadline: Feb. 1, 2011
From the Website: "Primary consideration will be given to candidates who are actively engaged in promoting agriculture through research, teaching, extension, or mass communication; who have made significant contributions to their discipline or field; and who demonstrate a passionate interest in communicating the importance of agriculture to policymakers, the news media, and the public. Nominees must have demonstrated their ability to communicate by written material; public presentations; and/or the use of television, radio, or other social media. They should be recognized by their peers as scientists who have made significant contributions in their professional fields."

Grantham Prize for Excellence in Reporting on the Environment
Eligibility: Eligible entries covering environment and/or natural resources topics and must have been published or broadcast in English in the United States or Canada between January 1 and December 31, 2010. The Grantham Prize is open to works of non-fiction produced in print, broadcast, online, or book formats.
Award: $75,000 for the top prize with up to three additional $5,000 Awards of Special Merit.
Deadline: Feb. 4, 2011 (book deadline has passed)
From the Website: "The purpose of the Prize is to encourage outstanding coverage of the environment, to recognize reporting that has the potential to bring about constructive change, and to broadly disseminate the Prize-winning story to increase public awareness and understanding of environmental and natural resource issues. Among the criteria jurors will consider are the significance of the subject matter, quality and originality of the journalism, the potential to effect constructive change, and the effort involved in telling the story.

The Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize
Eligibility: This award is open to citizens of a Commonwealth country or of the Irish Republic or those who have been ordinarily resident and working in a Commonwealth country or in the Irish Republic for a minimum of three years immediately prior to being proposed;
Award: The Prize consists of a silver gilt medal and a gift of £2500, which are presented by the President of the Royal Society on the occasion of the annual Michael Faraday Prize lecture (the recipient of the Prize is required to give an agreed lecture as part of the Society's annual programme of public events).
Deadline: Feb. 14, 2011
From the Website: "The Royal Society Michael Faraday Prize is the United Kingdom's premier award for science communication and is awarded annually for excellence in communicating science to UK audiences. The award was established by Council in 1986 and is given annually to the scientist or engineer whose expertise in communicating scientific ideas in lay terms is exemplary."

National Institute for Health Care Management Research and Educational Foundation Print Journalism Award and Television and Radio Journalism Award
Eligibility: Entries published in 2010
Award:$10,000 awards for general circulation publication, trade publication,and broadcast winners
Deadline: Feb. 15, 2011
From the Website: "Advances in health policy find their foundation in academic research and are achieved through public discourse facilitated by the media. To recognize the critical role both the research and journalism communities play in the health care system, each year NIHCM Foundation presents awards for outstanding work in health care research and journalism."

AHCJ-California Health Journalism Fellowships
Eligibility: Full-time California print, broadcast and online journalists and part-timers or freelancers who derive the majority of their income from journalism
Award:Financial assistance to attend Health Journalism 2011, the annual conference of the Association of Health Care Journalists Apr. 14-17 in Philadelphia
Deadline: Feb. 23, 2011
From the Website: "Fellowships are open to full-time California print, broadcast and online journalists and part-timers or freelancers who derive the majority of their income from journalism."

Knight-Risser Prize for Western Environmental Journalism
Eligibility: Open to journalists in all media working in the United States, Canada or Mexico who report on North American West environmental topics in 2010
Award: $5,000 prize is awarded at the annual Knight-Risser Prize Symposium at Stanford University
Deadline: Mar. 15, 2011 (book deadline has passed)
From the Website: "We want to reward and showcase reporting that best addresses important Western environmental issues - whether or not it was produced by journalists based in Western news organizations. Starting this year, we invite new players, from startups to nonprofits, students and citizen journalists to submit their finest work. Please refer to our standards for journalistic independence as explained below in the eligibility section."

Award for Excellence in Science and Medical Journalism, The Endocrine Society
Eligibility: English-language journalism related to endocrinology and published or broadcast between March 1, 2010 and February 28, 2011
Award: Award plaque and travel to the Society's annual meeting awards dinner in June 2011
Deadline: Apr. 1, 2011
From the Website: "The award recipient is selected by the Society's Advocacy and Public Outreach Core Committee (APOCC). The committee will give weight to entries that demonstrate thorough research, accurate reporting, originality and contribute to the public understanding of endocrinology."

Pfizer Award
Eligibility: This prize is awarded in recognition of an outstanding book dealing with the history of science. The book must be published in English during a period of three calendar years immediately preceding the year of competition (books eligible for 2006 were published in 2003, 2004, or 2005). Edited volumes, as well as works with more than 2 authors, are not eligible. A multi-volume work by one or two authors may be nominated only after the publication of all the volumes.
Award: The award consists of a medal and $2,500.
Deadline: Apr. 1, 2011
From the Website: "The prize committee may consider books where medicine or technology is a central theme. However, both the Society for the History of Technology and the American Association for the History of Medicine award their own prizes and while strict separation of fields is not always possible or desirable, the Pfizer Award should be given to a book that is principally a history of science."

Annual Awards for Reporting on the Environment, Society of Environmental Journalism
Eligibility: Any journalism that is predominantly about an environmental subject and published or broadcast in 2010 with $30-$80 entry fee
Award: $500 first-place, $200 second-place and $100 third-place prizes may be awarded in all categories.
Deadline: Apr. 1, 2011
From the Website: "Honors outstanding environmental reporting. Award is given to encourage journalists to help educate the public and public officials on environmental issues. Results achieved by the reporting may be included."

Educational Opportunities

Masters in Specialized Journalism, USC Annenberg School of Journalism and Communication
Eligibility: Complete online application; separate requirements for each program
Program: Nine-month program with flexible schedule
Deadline: Jan. 30, 2011 to be considered for scholarship, March 5, 2011 for admission
From the Website: "These highly customized degree programs are primarily designed for experienced journalists and gifted amateurs; the arts program welcomes practicing artists and recent graduates of arts academies and conservatories."

2011 Medicine in the Media Course, National Institutes of Health's Office of Medical Applications of Research
Eligibility: Priority will be given to credentialed, working health journalists in the mass media
Program: Course runs fromJuly 13-16, 2011 on the campus of Dartmouth College in Hanover, New Hampshire, accommodations and meals provided but participants will be responsible for covering travel costs
Deadline: Feb. 28, 2011
From the Website: "The course examines the challenges and opportunities inherent in the process of communicating the results of medical research to the public. Stressing an evidence-based approach and re-examining intuitive beliefs about medicine, the course will prepare participants for the crucial task of interpreting and evaluating research findings, selecting stories that hold meaningful messages for the public, and placing them in the appropriate context."

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