Award-winning U journalism professor resigns

Gary Schwitzer made the announcement Friday morning.

Award-winning U journalism professor resigns

Taryn Wobbema

Gary Schwitzer, an award-winning University of Minnesota journalism professor whose focus is the coverage of health issues in the media, announced Friday morning that he has resigned. Schwitzer said he decided to give up his tenured faculty position to focus more on âÄúhelping people understand health care issues.âÄù Schwitzer brought 15 years of broadcast reporting experience when he started teaching at the University in 2001. He covered medical news for CNN in Atlanta and WFAA-TV in Dallas. His first job was for WTMJ-TV in Milwaukee. He started as a summer intern, and at the internshipâÄôs conclusion he was offered a full-time position. It was there that he got his first taste of medical reporting. His news director offered him the role because no one else wanted it, Schwitzer said. âÄúI had no particular interest in science,âÄù he said. âÄúI took [the job] for all the wrong reasons and here I am 36 years later with a specialty I honed and never gave up on.âÄù He is currently the publisher of HealthNewsReview.org, a site dedicated to the analysis of health-related reporting. The Web site has critiqued nearly 1,000 stories since it launched in 2006. SchwitzerâÄôs basic complaint is that there are too many âÄúfluffyâÄù stories about health and science that make big claims but donâÄôt ask the right questions. As a CNN reporter in 1984, Schwitzer said people made âÄúextravagant claimsâÄù about health issues like AIDS, and he realized the need to ask critical questions about cost, evidence and access. âÄúHere we are, 26 years later, and we still donâÄôt have enough stories addressing those types of things,âÄù he said. School of Journalism and Mass Communication Director Al Tims said Schwitzer joined the University as part of the schoolâÄôs new initiative to grow a health journalism masterâÄôs program. Schwitzer, who earned a bachelorâÄôs degree from Marquette University, is the only SJMC faculty member without a higher degree. Professor Dan Wackman, SchwitzerâÄôs mentor when he first joined the faculty, said Schwitzer was a key player in getting the masterâÄôs program going. âÄúHe had interesting ideas, a lot more ideas than he was able to act on while he was here,âÄù Wackman said. âÄúI think heâÄôs got a chance now to really have a major impact on American society, and maybe societies in other places as well, through creating the context for better health communication.âÄù Schwitzer said he felt he was committed to two competing tasks when he launched HealthNewsReview.org. Tims said Schwitzer has been in a transitional phase for years. HeâÄôd been working half the time as a professor and the rest as publisher of the Web site. Tims said the health journalism masterâÄôs program was an area that could bring national distinction to SJMC. He said the UniversityâÄôs School of Public Health and the strong medical presence in the metro area set the stage for a successful program. Schwitzer was a part of that. âÄúHis niche here was clear,âÄù Tims said. But the need to cut costs across the University has placed the program on hold. Tims said SJMC had five open faculty positions go unfilled after the last round of budget cuts. He said the program couldnâÄôt continue without more faculty. That provided Schwitzer with one significant reason to make his yearlong leave of absence permanent. Though itâÄôs unlikely the program will have a visible presence over the next few years, Tims said there are still plenty of faculty interested in health communications. Citing its budget woes, Schwitzer said the University needs his salary, and with his commitments to Health News Review and his blog, he could not devote even half the time to his professorship that he has over the past three years. Schwitzer said he will miss the opportunity to impact students, but heâÄôs not giving up teaching. Instead, heâÄôs âÄúcatching people at a different point in their career.âÄù While on leave this year, he traveled about 70,000 miles to give talks and lead workshops, which finally led him to the decision to devote all of his time to the Health News Review project. He said the public has a poor understanding of health care issues today, partly due to the media. He wants to help journalists do a better job. âÄúIâÄôve loved all my jobs, but this one right now âÄî what IâÄôm doing right now on Health News Review and blogging and doing journalism workshops âÄî does feel like the most important.âÄù âÄîTaryn Wobbema is a senior staff reporter.