Stories with Impact: Student Journalists Take on Health Topics in their Communities

The research shows that students who participate in PBS NewsHour’s health science student journalism Labs program become more knowledgeable about health, and that they are taking the opportunity to highlight health issues that matter to their communities.

by Jena Barchas-LichtensteinJohn FraserNicole LaMarcaJohn VoiklisDarcey GlasserUduak Grace Thomas
Apr 14, 2020

Key Findings

Data from schools participating in the third year of a health science journalism project run by PBS NewsHour indicate that students who participate become more knowledgeable about health topics overall. But the data also shows that these students are taking ownership of their stories and using them as springboards to amplify health-related issues that matter to their communities.

In 2019, many students opted to focus their stories on issues in their communities that they felt were not getting enough attention or considered taboo topics. For example, students at one school that had recently experienced a student suicide decided to learn more about the topic to create a positive story about the student community’s recovery. Other stories explored issues such as social anxiety, eating disorders, supporting LGBTQ students, and racial equality in health care.

The very personal nature of some of these stories was evident in the student journalists’ interactions with our research team. At one school where students worked on a story about suicide, participants spoke openly about their own struggles with mental health. In another lab that worked on healthcare equity, students discussed the dearth of services for people of color and women in their communities. In some cases, working on these stories led to specific action. At one school, participants worked with administrators to develop new outreach services to help students dealing with mental health issues. Furthermore, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the SRL program staff created a special set of digital resources for students and teachers to report on the effects of virus in their communities from their unique perspectives.

More generally, students said they became more interested in learning about health topics as well as in health communications careers because of their involvement with the Health Student Reporting Labs program. In addition to learning how to report the news, students cultivated important life skills. This includes time management, how to locate available resources in their area, ways of effectively communicating about sensitive topics, and how to listen. They also learned the value of delegating tasks and working as part of a team towards a shared goal.

Let’s Put It to Work

For educators: PBS NewsHour provides some educational resources that could be a useful starting point for educators looking to include a journalism curriculum in their classrooms - the full curriculum is available to schools that have been accepted into the SRL program. It is important to note here that having a background in health is not a requirement for teaching. None of the teachers whose Labs were evaluated for this report have a background in health education. The biggest constraint for teachers was time, as they often juggled multiple responsibilities and classes. The time investment is something to keep in mind when planning a health journalism curriculum, as well as what resources are available locally to students such as at the library or local news station.

In general, the Health Student Reporting Labs were most effective when students worked independently of the teacher, and each student had a designated role in their group. However, teachers may need to play with different group structures and dynamics to identify the best fit for their classrooms.

About this Study

PBS NewsHour is focusing on building health literacy among adult and teen audiences through the Health Literacy and Student Reporting Labs project. Knology is the evaluator for the project, which is funded by the National Institutes of Health. The project has two goals: to engage middle and high school students in health science journalism, and to increase general news audiences’ awareness of public health matters. Results from adults are reported here. The study is ongoing and we are continuing to collect and analyze data.

Photo by Brad Neathery on Unsplash

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