Office Hours with Tom Linden

Tom Linden directs the Science and Medical Journalism Master’s Program at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He’s also a professor of medical journalism and teaches courses in science, medical, and environmental journalism for both undergraduate and graduate students. For the last 21 years he’s been the medical anchor for NEJM Journal Watch Audio General Medicine, a joint production of the Audio-Digest Foundation and the Massachusetts Medical Society. He’s also the author of The New York Times Reader: Health and Medicine. He’s a former medical and environmental television reporter for CNBC, KRON-TV in San Francisco, and Fox 11 in Los Angeles, and a former co-anchor of Physicians’ Journal Update on the Lifetime Television Network. Follow him on Twitter @tomlinden.


Tom LindenCourtesy of the UNC School of Media and Journalism

Tom Linden

What single concept or skill do you feel is most important for your students to learn, and what is your approach to teaching it?

That’s a very tough question as there are so many concepts and skills critical to being a good reporter, writer, and interpreter of science. If I were to teach one key skill, it would be how to approach a science story with a critical eye. To learn that skill, you have to have the requisite vocabulary and understand the scientific process. You have to be skeptical of every fact you read or hear and every person you interview. You have to ask about sources’ potential conflicts of interest. Most important of all, you have to follow your gut instincts if a story smells bad or if the results or data are too good to be true. Avoid the temptation to be first on a story and to push for prominent story placement if key questions remain unanswered. You can warn students about the dangers inherent in covering controversial or even mundane topics, but I’m not sure you can teach them all the ways to avoid getting burned. Only experience will teach that.

What specific skills-related experiences outside the classroom do you think are most important for students to have in their training?

There’s no classroom deadline that can match the raw fear and terror of meeting a broadcast, web, or print deadline. The bigger the story, the greater the terror. What seasoned journalists fear most is being wrong. Students can get a taste of that fear by working in a newsroom covering virtually any kind of story. One doesn’t need to focus just on science stories. In fact, I think working as a general-assignment reporter on daily deadline can teach a student a lot more about the rigors of reporting than spending a month preparing a narrative report. Before going into academia, I was a broadcast medical and environmental journalist. Learning how to write a day-of-air story in my head as I returned from a field assignment helped me become a better reporter and a more focused writer.

What have you learned in your own career that you most hope to convey to your students?

The most important lesson I learned in my print and broadcast career was to not settle for working in a sick newsroom or with editors or news directors who don’t value their reporters. At its core, writing and reporting depends on connecting with people, and not just in the field. Whether you work for a website or a major broadcast news organization, you’re only as good as the people you work with. If you feel undermined or not supported, then you should look for the first possible exit without burning your bridges, if that’s possible. I’ve had the pleasure of working with producers and editors who have made me a better writer and reporter. I’ve also worked with editors and news directors who made my life miserable for brief stretches of time. I tell students to trust their instincts and work with people whom they admire and trust. Depending on the story you pursue, your life may depend on it.

What textbooks and other reading do you use in your teaching?

For the nonfiction writer there’s no better primer than On Writing Well by William Zinsser. Whenever I write, I imagine Zinsser imploring me to cut the fat from my copy. In critiquing class assignments, I follow several of Zinsser’s conventions, including bracketing unnecessary words, phrases, and even paragraphs. Every year I assign the latest edition of The Best American Science and Nature Writing. I’m never disappointed by the selection of stories and appreciate the varied styles, topics, and voices in that volume. I also love The Medusa and the Snail by Lewis Thomas, the physician, writer, and biologist whose mind-expanding essays are unsurpassed for their depth and imagination. News and Numbers by Cohn and Cope remains the best guide to interpreting medical statistics and epidemiology for the lay reporter. I use my book, The New York Times Reader: Health and Medicine, as a template for my course. In that book I selected what I considered the best medical and health stories in The New York Times over a five-year period. Some of the stories are dated, but the writing and reporting of the Times science staff are superb. Also, each year I teach my science and medical journalism course, I pick at least one nonfiction book for my students to read. Past selections have included Spillover by David Quammen, Toms River by Dan Fagin, and Awakenings, by Oliver Sacks, among others. This year I’ll assign How We Learn, by Benedict Carey, and Black Man in a White Coat, by Damon Tweedy.

What resources do you wish were more readily available for students?

I wish my students had access to more paid internships offered by major news organizations. I have a rule that I don’t pass on unpaid internship opportunities to my students. No one should work for free. That’s exploitive. Over the past 15 years my master’s students have worked at a number of excellent news and communication operations, including CNN, ABC News, The Scientist magazine, Brookhaven National Laboratory, Voice of America, Yale’s Rudd Center for Food Policy & Obesity, Yale Medicine, and North Carolina Public Television, among others. I recognize that the job market in the news industry has contracted, but at the same time new opportunities have opened online and in the science communication area.

What is a science story that you admire, and why?

I am in awe of Dan Fagin’s reportorial tenacity in his Pulitzer Prize–winning book Toms River. Dan wove a narrative that had hundreds of strands and took years to complete. For pure reading pleasure I’m drawn to almost anything that David Quammen writes. In his book Spillover, Quammen wove epidemiology, microbiology, and ecology into a tale that was both scientifically sound and terrifying.

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