Sunday, September 9, 2012

On alcohol and loyalties in medical journalism

This semester, I’m taking courses on medical journalism and media ethics simultaneously. One of the things we’ve discussed as an ethical challenge in my medical journalism class is the difficulty of a health journalist to choose what to cover: there are hundreds of studies going on at the same time, hundreds of articles being published in dozens of reputable journals, hundreds of faulty studies with manipulated data.

As a health journalist, your writing can have a direct impact on the health of your readers. It’s funny: a study that says “eat healthy, exercise, don’t smoke” is good for condition X rarely makes a media ripple, even though science confirms again and again that that’s really the best advice for just about everything.

People want quick fixes. People want health to be easy. People want to know that red wine is good for them.
I’ve heard studies that say a glass of red wine per night is good for you from the time that I still thought that alcohol was gross and I would never ever drink (read: quite a while ago). It’s not news. And yet, if you do a Google News search for “red wine” on any given day, you’ll get at least five articles in the first page telling you that red wine is great for some condition!

Caveat: this week is the only exception to that. A flurry of news articles are emerging on a study that has realized that — GASP! — the alcohol in it might not actually be what’s good for you!

But science says that exercise is WAY BETTER FOR YOU THAN WINE,Y’ALL. Science says so AGAIN AND AGAIN. But you don’t see exercise in the media over and over again the way you see wine.

I see this as a phenomenon of divided loyalties. The medical journalist has a number of forces he or she needs to be loyal to:
  • The health of the readers
  • The number of readers
  • Employment — journalists are loyal to the hand that feeds, AKA the paycheck
  • The science

If science and health were really the top loyalties of journalists, we would very, very rarely the red wine studies published. But we see them all the time.

Philosopher Josiah Royce said that to be ethical, we should be loyal to things that harmonize with the loyalties of the community.

But that raises more questions. Humans tend to be more loyal to things that are bad for their health than good for their health.

We don’t get paid if people don’t read what we write. The more people that are subscribing to our paper, the more likely we are to have a job tomorrow in a very volatile media environment.

Medical journalism is also a tricky field, because those who write for widespread audiences have the additional challenge that medicine is so personal. If scientists discovered a miracle cure for some incredibly rare but incredibly dangerous disease, it should be newsworthy — but if you’re not writing for a niche publication, the vast majority of your readers would prefer to skim over it in the news briefs.

But most readers enjoy wine. So some compromise is necessary.

So would I write the story that’s all over the news this week? Yes, yes I would. Because it’s correcting a widely believed news story. Would I write one of the many stories that was all over the news last week, like that red wine prevents old people from falling? That red wine might decrease the risk of breast cancer? That red wine helps builds strong bones?
No. Because we all already know that a little bit of red wine per day has health benefits. But you know what else does ALL OF THOSE THINGS, but better, more often and more efficiently? Good diet and exercise.

Sunday, February 19, 2012


Dieta: diet

I’m a little embarrassed to admit that prior to coming to Nicaragua, I was one of those people who thought all food in Central America was like Mexican food. I was so excited to eat here, because I thought I’d be eating spicy jalapeños and melty cheese all semester long.

Well, I quickly found out I was wrong. There’s really not a lot to food in Nica. While there are some local cuisines that I’ll certainly miss, on the whole, it’s pretty boring. That being said, I’m loving how incredibly cheap it is to eat here. A nicer meal out costs between 5 and 7 U.S. dollars. I rarely eat out except for lunch, and when I do, I usually only pay a little less than 3 U.S. dollars. However, overall, the diet here is far from healthy. Nicaraguans deep fry nearly everything, and vegetables are few and far between. I’ll do my best to demonstrate the cuisine with the help of Google images.

I eat some form of rice and beans at least once a day, frequently twice a day. Probably the most famous Nicaraguan food is gallo pinto.

Not all rice and beans is gallo pinto. I like gallo pinto, and there are certainly many foods out there that would be worse as staples to your diet. But it’s a little bland. It’s exactly what it looks like and nothing more: beans and rice. It’s made better with a little hot sauce, but even the hot sauce here isn’t spicy by my standards.

Nicaragua is also famous for its quesillos, a corn tortilla filled with a little lettuce, vinegar, cheese, hot sauce and a splash of cream. Sounds strange? I know. I was a little skeptical too.

But it’s actually a lot better than expected. They’re a great little street snack, and super cheap. They run around 10 cordobas, which is somewhere around 50 cents. One great thing about them: it’s the spiciest food I’ve had in Nicaragua, hands down.

Nicaraguans also love their pizza. But it’s hardly a reminder of home.

Nicaraguan pizza is not my taste, to be honest. It’s thicker than U.S. pizza and the sauce is pretty flavorless. It’s very cheesy. It’s not a bad dinner; it just certainly won’t solve your craving for pizza.

However, one drink that I’ll miss a lot is the Nicaraguan cacao.

It’s similar to chocolate milk, but it’s a little less sweet. It’s milk with cocoa powder and little chocolate flakes, and it’s sold at a local panaderia out of bags. It’s super cool and refreshing, perfect for the insanely hot Nicaraguan weather.

This will surely not be my last blog about the food here. Eating here is always an adventure.

Also, I leave early Tuesday morning to spend a week at a campesina in Northern, rural Nicaragua. I know very little about it except that I need thick rubber work boots and I’ll be doing a lot of manual labor. I have no idea if there will be any access to Internet, so it might be a little while until my next entry.

Tuesday, February 14, 2012


Crecer: Grow.

It’s been almost two full weeks in Nicaragua. I’m a lot less overwhelmed than I first was, although every day is full of challenges.

I finally feel like I’m starting to adjust to this life. To be perfectly honest, I’ve had many moments in the last two weeks where I’ve wondered if I’ve made a mistake by trying to go somewhere that I didn’t know the language.

Now I knew when I decided to limit myself to Central America that my Spanish was far from conversational. And I had the option of choosing Australia, where I could have actually gotten credits toward my major. But I decided to push myself and go somewhere that I could hopefully gain at least one valuable skill from.

Now the language is still a challenge every day, but I’m finally getting better at skirting around words I don’t know. We have “Conversation partners” in our program, which are basically students at the Universidad Centroamericana who get a free lunch if they eat with us and speak in Spanish once a week. Today was my second week with mine, and while there were awkward communication moments, it was a lot less awkward then last week.

And as of tomorrow, I have three months left here. If my Spanish has already improved this much in two weeks, I’ve got a lot to look forward to, I think.

This past weekend, I turned 21. This is an event I’ve been looking forward to my entire life, so I was a little skeptical of turning 21 in a country where it doesn’t matter. But I have to say, it was the most memorable and best birthday so far.

First, my entire study abroad group came to the club with me, which was incredibly sweet. We went to a trendy club called Chaman. It’s not exactly something you can get in the U.S…

Now Nicaragua is famous for its rum, Flor de Caña, the best rum in Central America. I have to say, it’s the best rum I’ve ever had in my life, so it made a great birthday drink. Not to mention that one rum and coke here costs 20 Cordobas – less than 1 U.S. dollar. So I wasn’t able to go to the Franklin Street bars at midnight like everyone else, but I feel pretty damn good about it. Dancing in Nicaragua is a lot of fun – and much classier than in the U.S. The club was also hosting its first major event of the year (a Valentine's Day celebration), so it was absolutely packed, and had people spilling out into a beautiful attached outdoor venue.

But what was even better than my Saturday night was my Sunday. My host parents threw me a party and invited the entire neighborhood. It was very traditionally Nicaraguan; they served everyone dinner and I got to blow out the candles on the cake as the room sang to me. My fellow students brought their host families and they brought me these wonderful Nicaraguan gifts, several of which were made by little siblings. It was so precious. And I just absolutely felt like a part of their family. This is not a family of great means, and for them to put all of this time into a party for someone who has only known them for one week touched me so much – I feel like I’m part of a family here, and that’s incredible.

In short, it was the greatest birthday I’ve ever had. Thanks Nica.

Wednesday, February 8, 2012


Rivalidad: Rivalry.

Full disclosure: this is my fourth attempt at this particular blog entry.

I’m not sure what I want this blog to be. I’ve read plenty of study abroad blogs that I thought were just dreadful; a blog has to be relevant to the readers and put things in context. For instance, though I’ve spent a lot of time thinking about the FSLN in the past couple of days, but the context of that is too complicated to blog about just yet.

So I could list a few of the things I’ve done in the past few days, but it feels strange to simply share what I’m doing and where I’m going.

My study abroad advisor warned us at orientation that we would go through an emotional cycle throughout our trips filled with highs and lows, eventually leveling off. But so far, every day I have those highs and lows.

I recently moved into my homestay after a few days in a hotel with my other students. It’s quite the experience. My parents are just lovely. They’re a couple in their mid 40s who have hosted many students before me, and I love that they call me their daughter. And although the language barrier is very present and often very awkward, they are very understanding of my level and are very patient in conversation. I also have a host brother who is my age.

Perhaps the highlight of my homestay, however, is my wonderful, wonderful set of furry siblings. I have two dogs. Nikki, the Pit bull puppy, is a little crazy. She’s so full of energy all the time, and is at times too much for me. But Pece is exactly what I need when I’m feeling overwhelmed: this little yappy dog is a source of unconditional love regardless of the langue I speak.

Although today, I’ve been more homesick than usual.

Facebook and Twitter are aflutter with my fellow students excitement of the Duke-UNC game. No one in my study abroad is from the south, or even from another big basketball school. I’ve tried explaining to them how close this rivalry is and reading them excerpts from Ian Williams’ famous column, “Why I hate Duke,” But it’s hard to understand until you’ve breathed the Carolina air.

I pretty much don’t have Internet access after 8 p.m. here, so I don’t know if I’ll be able to watch the game or even check the score. So if you are in North Carolina, don’t take tonight for granted. I hope I can celebrate a victory, but if I do, it seems I’ll be rushing the city with no street names by myself.

Thursday, February 2, 2012


entonces: Then

There’s so much to write about these last 24 hours. But I firmly believe blog posts are better short, so I’ve written many pages already in my private journal.

Flying over Lake Managua was absolutely surreal. The water was so expansive, you couldn’t see land – and this was from a plane. It looked like an ocean with mountains in the distant background and no waves.

The ecology is the most amazing part about Managua so far. The city is huge in mileage, with no real city center (and no street names at all – that’s pretty terrifying). As the biggest city in the biggest country in Central America, it’s home to more than a million people, but I can count the number of buildings with more than three stories on two hands. There are no tall buildings, and every view is primarily trees.

I wish I could show you all – unfortunately, it seems I’ll have a very small number of photos. Managua is the safest capitol city in Central America, but it certainly does not feel that way. Part of this safety comes from the fastest growing industry in Nicaragua: private security. The extremely wealthy hire private guards to walk around their homes 24/7. But walking past men holding very, very large guns doesn’t scream “Safety.”

Because of that, we aren’t to ever carry more than 50 cordobas (the Nicaraguan currency), which equates to about $2.50 USD, and is plenty for lunch. We aren’t to ever pull out any money in public, and we are not to carry a bag if it can be avoided. If we choose to carry a bag, we are told we must be prepared to part with its entire contents.

We also have two program interns this semester who completed the SIT Nicaragua program two years prior, and while they swear their year was extremely unusual, their semester had two robberies, one at gunpoint and one at knifepoint.

Nicaragua is not touristy, Managua even less so. The architecture is uninspiring at best. Because of the safety issues, tall fences topped with barbed wire block many of the views.

This introduction is not to imply in any way that I don’t love Nicaragua so far. I’ve never seen such a green big city in my life. The weather is absolutely amazing, with highs in the 90s every day this week. The people are among the liveliest I’ve met. The food is an adventure. And of course, the culture is expansive and fascinating. But I certainly won’t have the study abroad experience that many of my peers have had. The city’s gems may be hidden, but it’s truly going to be an adventure to grow from.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012


Comenzar: To start.

Well, I’ve made it to Miami, one of my absolute favorite cities in the world (and the city where I was born!)! Even though I can’t explore it this time, seeing the palm trees, the amazing downtown skyline and eating a little Cuban food in the airport is good enough for me. Since I’ve got a more amazing adventure waiting, that is.

I’m already a little overwhelmed by all the Spanish, and I’m still in Florida.

In just a few hours, I’ll be in Managua, where I’ll be spending nearly the next 4 months. I’m all kinds of excited.

Exciting updates come later. But the best blog posts are short, so for now, here are a few airport musings:

  • · Annoying lady on my flight here constantly poked my side with her elbow. Like constantly. The entire two hour flight. But at least I got a window seat.
  • · The Miami airport is huge. HUGE. I was not prepared for this. Getting from where my flight came in from RDU to the airline that I’m flying to Managua took over an hour. Literally. A full hour.
  • · Seeing men with overly patriotic shirts (see: old man with the American flag sweatshirt that reads “These colors don’t bleed”) makes me wonder if they’re actually terrorists overcompensating for something.
  • · Sweet old man shared his comic book from the 50’s. It was actually brilliant – if you ever get the chance to look at “Passionella,” (I think that was the name?) you’re crazy not to. The comic “Boom” was a brilliant commentary on the cold war. Then we had this nice little discussion on the effectiveness of mediums in journalism. In conclusion, not enough people talk in airports.
  • I miss my iPhone. A lot.