New Harvard Chan course: Engaging with the Press

Richard J. Tofel
Harvard Chan distinguished visiting fellow Richard J. Tofel

This fall Harvard Chan is launching a new, noncredit course called Engaging with the Press: A Practical Look at Effective Public Health Communications. It will be taught by veteran journalist Richard J. Tofel, the former president of ProPublica and a distinguished visiting fellow at Harvard Chan. We caught up with Tofel to find out more.     

Your course will explore the relationship between public health and the press. Why is it important that we probe that relationship right now?

One of the many things we learned—or should have learned—from the pandemic is that public health generally (and those who practice it individually) needs to step up its game in communicating with the news media. For more than two and half years now we have heard about mixed messaging, unclear communications, and the challenges of disinformation as constraints on the success of critical public health work. Not all of this has been the fault or responsibility of health professionals, but some of it surely has been. There will be a “next time,” and we each—and all—need to be better equipped when that time comes.

What can students expect to take away from your class?

This class is intended to be quite practical in application, while still taking an academic approach. So we’ll take up subjects like how to communicate with reporters and understanding the perspective of public health officials who must communicate with the general public, as well as special topics of current importance, including social media, communicating about scientific papers, how to convey complexity, the particular issues of radio and television, and the increasing problem of disinformation. Each class will be preceded by a limited amount of background reading and will feature one or more leading practitioners as guests.

Whose perspectives will students hear?

Guests will include leading members of the faculty at Harvard Chan and the rest of Harvard, many drawing on their previous experiences in government and as public figures. Other sessions will be joined by leading reporters, editors, and broadcasters. Those currently scheduled to join us include Jill Abramson, the former executive editor of the New York Times; Eric Rubin, the editor of the New England Journal of Medicine; Marc Lipsitch of Harvard Chan and now also the US CDC; and Tina (Martin) McDuffie, host and reporter at WGBH.

Sounds great. What sort of time commitment can I expect?

The course meets seven times, once every other Friday morning, for ninety minutes. It is envisioned as an active seminar, with limited readings designed to provoke informed discussion. As it is a noncredit course, there will be no required written assignments, but the course will conclude with an optional short paper; all papers submitted will be personally and closely reviewed by the instructor, and one or more will be published on Harvard Chan’s Center for Health Communication website.

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