Knight Foundation Awards BU $1.2M for Science-medical Journalism Center

Contact: Sarah Godbout, 617-358-1240 |

(Boston, Mass.) — The John S. and James L. Knight Foundation has awarded $1,151,700 to Boston University to establish an international science and medical journalism center to strengthen news coverage of science, medicine and public health.

The center will build on the College of Communication’s Graduate Science Journalism Program. The Knight funds, which will be appropriated over three years, will be used to train students and practicing journalists to recognize, investigate, and explain scientific and medical issues. The aim is to improve the quality of medical journalism in print, broadcast and online news organizations.

“Greater Boston is a hub of medical, biotechnological, academic and journalistic expertise, ” said Dr. W. Gerald Austen, chairman of the Knight Foundation Board of Trustees and former chief of surgery at Massachusetts General Hospital. “The combination of Boston University’s medical school and journalism department makes it a natural spot for locating a new center that will help broaden our society’s understanding of medicine and medical research. ”

Boston University President Jon Westling said, “Boston University is grateful to the Knight Foundation for establishing this center. Reporters, who are not themselves scientists or physicians, are often faced with the challenge of explaining scientific and medical advances to the general public. In creating this center, the Knight Foundation recognizes the increasing need in our technological civilization for informed reporting on science by journalists who know how to assess the importance of discoveries and how to put them into contexts that the public can understand. ”

The grant was among several announced today by the Miami-based Knight Foundation, which makes national grants in the fields of journalism, education, and arts and culture. Brothers John and Jim Knight, who owned several daily newspapers and later acquired Ridder newspapers to create Knight-Ridder Newspapers, Inc., created the foundation in 1950. The foundation is separate from and independent of the newspapers.

William B. Ketter, chairman of Boston University’s Journalism Department, said the idea of a center stemmed from growing public interest in medical developments, and the need for the mainstream media to become more expert in reporting on them accurately and authoritatively. He said lack of technical knowledge often leads to misleading and confusing stories.

“Medical and public health issues play an increasingly important role in the lives of Americans,” Ketter added. “The challenge to journalism is to keep up with these issues, and to make sense of them for the public. The center will strive to train reporters and editors who can do that.” Furthermore, Ketter said, “Boston is the ideal place for a center aimed at improving the scope and quality of reporting science and medicine. We have some of the world’s best doctors, scientists and medical researchers, health care experts, teaching hospitals, and schools of public health. The center intends to tap into this wealth of medical resources.”

Professors Douglas Starr and Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-directors of the current science journalism program, will oversee the new center. Both are veteran science and medical journalists, who frequently write for newspapers, magazines, broadcast outlets and specialty publications. Ruppel Shell, a correspondent for the Atlantic Monthly, is currently writing a book about the science of obesity. Starr is the author of Blood, a book on the history of blood in medicine and commerce that won the top nonfiction science award in last year’s Los Angles Times national book competition.

Starr and Ruppel Shell said the existing program has trained many of the nation’s top science journalists, and that the Knight grant will allow them to amplify their efforts in the areas of medicine and public health. The grant also will provide resources for mid-career training of journalists, and for building international ties.

“The need for clear, substantive and balanced journalism in this field has never been greater, with an aging population seeking more and better health care, and a rapidly evolving medical and drug industry,” said Ruppel Shell.

“The international community, ” Starr added, “has a great need for better science and health reporting, “especially those countries facing ongoing health crises from poverty, war and emerging diseases.”

The Knight-funded center, which will open in the fall of 2001, will add the following components to Boston University’s existing science and medical journalism curriculum: A visiting scholar program. Each year the center will enable one distinguished journalist to take a semester’s leave from reporting to teach and conduct research on issues in science, medicine, and the environment. On campus training for mid-career professionals. The center will offer intensive training for reporters assigned by news organizations to cover medicine and health. Training for international journalists. Each year, the center will admit two journalists from other countries, preferably in the developing world, to improve science and medical journalism in their home countries. Conferences on science and medical journalism. These meetings will bring together leading editors and reporters with scientists, historians of science, physicians, policy makers and others who understand the practice and politics of science and medicine. Global reference resource. The center will include a library devoted to science and medical journalism, and a Web site in which journalists from around the world can exchange information, sources and perspectives on science, medical and public health issues.

(For additional information, contact William B. Ketter, chairman, Department of Journalism (617/353-3484); Professor Doug Starr, co-director of the science journalism program (617/353-5972); Professor Ellen Ruppel Shell, co-director of the science journalism program (617/353-5973). —30 —