Unfortunately, CUNY’s is not the only health/medical journalism program that has been struggling. The University of Minnesota suspended its graduate health journalism program during the 2007-2008 academic year. The program wasn’t drawing enough students from the journalism school, so it changed its name and curriculum in a bid to reach enrollment targets by attracting more students from the school of public health (both schools had always been eligible). The program reopened during 2008-2009 under the name Health Journalism and Communication and fielded a class of fourteen. But it was shelved again during this academic year because of constraints in the state budget, according to Gary Schwitzer, who stepped down as the program’s director at the end of last year and is currently on sabbatical.

“This is not a pretty picture,” he said, referring to the situations at the University of Minnesota and CUNY. Schwitzer said that the University of Minnesota’s health journalism program was actually attracting an average of fourteen students per year, making it one of the biggest of its kind, but that his department had unreasonable enrollment expectations of eighteen to twenty. (New York University’s Science, Health and Environmental Reporting Program typically has fifteen students a year, but has a broader orientation than just medical journalism. So does Boston University’s Center for Science and Medical Journalism, which fields a class of nine to twelve each year, and the University of North Carolina’s Medical & Science Journalism Program, which fields two to four.)

The circumstances at the University of Minnesota might be different than at CUNY, Schwitzer added, but the consequence—a decline in the quality of the health and medical journalism—is the same, and all schools must find a way to support such vital programs.

Schwitzer runs the highly regarded media criticism Web site, HealthNewsReview.org. The site has evaluated 930 health news articles in the past three and a half years, and found that the vast majority failed to adequately discuss the cost of a new treatment, test, product, or procedure; or they failed to adequately quantify the harms and the benefits.

“Seventy percent of stories make it look like everything is risk-free and without a price tag,” Schwitzer said. “That is the danger of the direction that the industry is going, and that’s the danger of the dissolution of programs like CUNY’s and ours, if that happens here.”

Suggestions for how universities can help fill the vacuum left by cutbacks in journalism vary, but one of the most popular ideas at moment is to train members of the health and medical professions to be better communicators. Lieberman said that the CUNY program had succeeded in attracting in students from the public health program at Hunter College. In the same vein, she will now shift venues and teach health/medical communications courses in professional programs at Hunter and at Baruch College, both of which are in the CUNY system. (An innovative, multimedia, community health reporting project geared toward combating obesity and diabetes in the South Bronx run by Lieberman will also move to Hunter.)

“Maybe the place for this [education] is in other disciplines like medicine, or public health, or public administration,” she said. “It may be that the principles we teach in health journalism work very well in an applied setting with public health and medical professionals. I believe that’s probably where it ought to be going forward.”

Ivan Oransky, who teaches health and medical reporting in NYU’s SHERP program and was an adjunct professor for the CUNY program, in addition to being the executive editor of Reuters Health, said that these programs should court students with focused interests in health and medicine, rather than just a general interest in journalism.

“When you have as challenging and specific a concentration as medicine and health you may do much better if you focus on finding people who are already interested in those subjects and have demonstrated a facility in them,” he said. “In other words, reaching out to other schools like Hunter, in the case of CUNY, or doing what NYU does, which is attracting and creating a program around students who already have some expertise [in some field of science]. Maybe that’s the way forward.”

To that effect, Schwitzer suggested offering introductory courses in health and medical journalism at the undergraduate level, which he says he has done to great and lasting success, but which is incredibly rare in academia.

Whatever the solution may be, one hopes that universities will find it soon. Programs of this sort may disappear, but the need for quality health and medical reporting will not go away.

If you'd like to get email from CJR writers and editors, add your email address to our newsletter roll and we'll be in touch.

Curtis Brainard writes on science and environment reporting. Follow him on Twitter @cbrainard.