Ask a Mentor-Editor: Sheri Fink, recent Pulitzer Prize winner, talks about being a journalist with a medical background and her experience at ProPublica, the independent, non-profit newsroom.

Dr. Sheri Fink, a reporter at ProPublica, has reported on health, medicine and science in the U.S. and from every continent except Antarctica. Since 2004 she has been a frequent contributor to the public radio newsmagazine PRI’s The World, covering the global HIV/AIDS pandemic and international aid in development, conflict and disaster settings. Her articles have appeared in such publications as the New York Times, Discover and Scientific American. Fink’s book War Hospital: A True Story of Surgery and Survival (Public Affairs, 2003) won the American Medical Writer’s Association special book award and was a finalist for the Overseas Press Club and PEN Martha Albrand awards. Fink has taught at Harvard, Tulane and the New School. Most recently she was the recipient of a Kaiser Media Fellowship in Health from the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Ravenna Koenig (OpEd Project Intern): You are a medical doctor and you have a Ph.D in neuroscience; after investing so much in an education that prepared you for a different profession, why did you choose to dive into journalism?

Sheri Fink: It was a long process. After medical school I took a year off to go to Bosnia and look at how doctors had practiced there during the war. Before I went I did a journalism fellowship with the American Association for the Advancement of Sciences, it’s a fellowship in journalism specifically for graduate students in science. I undertook that because I wanted to learn about the methods and the ethics of journalism before going off to do this work in Bosnia. I had a fellowship to go to Bosnia, and one of the stipulations was that I write a book at the end of it.

Through the process of spending time in a newsroom as a fellow, and then freelancing after the war broke out in Kosovo, I realized that I really loved journalism. I found it challenging in different ways than medicine was challenging, and I like that. It was a long process deciding which way to go and I chose journalism ultimately, although I do have to say that I use my background a lot in my journalism. I write about medical topics, so having had a medical background helps. In terms of the science degree, doing a Ph.D. in neuroscience teaches you about how to look at evidence, and how to be very careful before drawing conclusions, and I find that very translatable to journalism. A lot of the same principles about seeking truth are the same in journalism as in science.

RK: Many women who come through the OEP seminars hold degrees in fields that have nothing to do with journalism or communications. How would you recommend approaching the task of breaking into the world of journalism when you don’t have a background in it?

SF: Journalism is a profession and it requires a lot of dedication to be effective and good. So approaching it as you would approach your first profession would be appropriate-really trying to learn what are the principles, what are the methods, what are the ethics, and practice, practice, practice and read a lot. Really apply yourself. Take it seriously. It’s tough but it’s very rewarding.

RK: Recently in the news controversy has sprung up about doctors doubling as journalists (for example, Sanjay Gupta who feels he’s a doctor first and a journalist second and who received some criticism for engaging in a “self-promotional” acts by helping in Haiti when he was a CNN correspondent). How does being a doctor affect your journalism when you’re on the ground working in your journalistic capacity?

SF: I’ve always been kind of a purist so I have separated journalism from the non-journalistic things I’ve done, like humanitarian aid work or teaching public health. I don’t consider myself a first-person journalist, that’s just not my thing. I know that that’s more and more acceptable: to have people who are in fields write about their experience in those fields, and that’s something I generally don’t do, with some exceptions, like a piece I did for “Scientific American” that drew together a lot of things I had learned both as an aid worker in crisis situations and as a reporter. But when I set out to go to a certain place, whether it be Haiti or Louisiana after Katrina, I have one role. Unlike Gupta, I don’t currently practice clinical medicine, so there are typically other medical professionals around who are more qualified to treat patients. I can’t think of many times where I’ve experienced that conflict. That being said, when any journalist works in a crisis context, the possibility can arise that they will encounter someone in extremis who desperately needs their help. The current ethos tends to be that you’re a human being first and it’s okay to offer that assistance if you can. Those can be difficult situations.

RK: What was your experience like working at the non-profit online publication ProPublica?

SF: What I really value in ProPublica is that it’s a newsroom set up with ample resources to support in-depth, long-term journalistic projects and that is an incredible outlier in this day and age. There weren’t many limits to what we could do to pursue a story. On top of that, ProPublica has excellent editors, and working with them was great. When we partner with other media outlets, like the NYT Magazine, for example, then the wonderful attributes of those organizations were added to ProPublica’s. It’s fantastic as a reporter because you have resources, editors, a dedicated, excited, innovative web team at ProPublica helping to draw out meaning and clarity in your work. Then with a partner publication like the NYT Magazine there are incredible editors, a great research department, a legal department, so we have those resources to draw on. And then the photos, the publication itself, the presentation and the impact that story can have. It’s a really rich environment.

RK: You’ve been incredibly active in Haiti recently, you’re starting a new book, you just won a Pulitzer, and yet you also happen to be one of the most active and generous mentor editors in the Op-Ed Project. Why? What do you get out of being a mentor-editor?

SF: It makes me very happy to see people who are passionate about writing and have important things to say get an opportunity to say them and get their work out there. It’s very rewarding to be able to contribute to that in a small way.

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