Laura Ungar shared her experiences in medical reporting

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Photo Courtesy of Laura Ungar.

By Heidi Li

COLUMBIA – Without a degree in journalism, Laura Ungar started small and eventually become a sophisticated medical writer. She kept working hard since the first day she entered journalism, and now she has been a medical writer for more than 12 years.

“Journalism is all about doing,” Ungar said.

Laura Ungar shared her experience in medical reporting with our Science, Health and Environmental Reporting class on April 25 via Skype, and she answered our questions about her recent stories for The Courier-Journal, a newspaper where she has written for for almost 10 years.

Growing up in a small town in Connecticut, Ungar said she has always been enthusiastic about writing. She started a newspaper in her high school, and later she studied English at the University of Connecticut. She didn’t consider journalism as a career until she got an opportunity in her senior year to write features for a local startup newspaper. As she talked to people and wrote stories about community, she began to realize her passion in journalism.

On a day after her graduation, she walked into the office of The Hartford Courant, the largest newspaper in Connecticut, and after showing her portfolio to the editor she was hired as a correspondent. From there, Ungar began her real training as a journalist, as she typically worked 60 hours and wrote 10 stories a week.

Ungar also attributed her current ability to juggle multiple stories and projects at the same time to her experience at the Hartford Courant.

“I worked really hard there,” she said.

At the Courant, Ungar covered various towns, and education stories. While she advanced her reporting skills, she started to look for bigger stories, ones that can reflect trends. She then started her new job at The News Journal in Delaware, where she covered education and then medicine.

Covering public health made Ungar gradually realize that medical writing can actually change people’s lives. In 2004, she became a medical writer for The Courier-Journal in Louisville, Ky.

To educate herself more about medicine, Ungar joined the Association of Health Care Journalists and read medical journals. She also talks with her sources to get updates in the field. She said she got her story idea for a prescription drug abuse story from talking to one of her sources.

Ungar travelled to India in 2007 to report on cervical cancer and University of Louisville researchers’ efforts to help victims. Since then she has gone to India every year. Her trip was funded by a fellowship from the International Center for Journalists, and later she also gained financial support through freelancing for other news media, including The Boston Globe and The Washington Post.

When Ungar was in India, she went to hospitals partnered with the University of Louisville, and there she met with many women who suffered from cervical cancer. She followed some of those patients to their villages and saw more victims who hadn’t seen doctors yet.

Ungar said she’d expected it to be tough for a foreign reporter to get in touch with local victims in a foreign country. To the contrary, she found herself welcomed by those women.

“I felt everyone was willing to talk to me,” she said.

Ungar said that researchers are still working on vaccines for cervical cancer patients in India.

Last year, Ungar worked on a multimedia story, “True Beauty,” about Jill Conley, a woman who decided to abandon medication after being diagnosed with Stage IV breast cancer. Ungar said this story was different from other investigative stories she had done previously.

“It was more about her (Jill’s) mission (to spread the word of true beauty) than just a medical story,” Ungar said.

The multimedia story was also the fruit of teamwork, as all the black and white photos were taken by Michael Clevenger, a photographer for the Courier-Journal. Ungar said she has had some special experiences working with photographers, as they brought visual perspectives to a story.

“I saw more things,” she said.

Ungar said she also shoots photos herself now, as journalism tends to use more multimedia elements today than it did 20 years ago.

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