Ryerson and U of T combine forces to train doctors and journalists on interviewing skills.

By H.G. Watson, Associate Editor

In a radio studio at Ryerson University, Madeline Smith is interviewing Dr. Mike Benusic, a resident physician at St. Michael’s Hospital in Toronto, about the mortality rates of homeless people.

It is, in most respects, a fairly normal radio interview—except for the fact that outside, about 30 doctors and journalism students are listening to them and taking copious notes about their performances.

For the past several years, a select group of Ryerson journalism students and University of Toronto residents in the public health and preventive medicine residency program get together for an intensive day of learning how to do a better interview.

“It offers a real 360-degree view of the interview process,” said Janice Neil, associate chair at the Ryerson School of Journalism and former editor-in-chief of J-Source. “It models the process that would be used, for instance, on every CBC current affairs show and some of the commercial radio shows.”

Students do pre-interviews with the residents, then turn their background research and suggested questions to fellow journalism students who conduct the interviews. In the morning of the training day, students and residents break off into pairs to do radio interviews, followed by TV interviews in the afternoon. The model means students need to become experts in their interview topics fairly quickly.

“It’s really helpful for the residents because a lot of them are going to take on roles where they will be dealing with public health issues, and that means dealing with the media more,” said Dr. Onye Nnorom, associate program director of the public health and preventative medicine residency program at U of T.

After each resident and student journalist do their interviews, their peers offer constructive criticism. After Smith’s radio discussion with Benusic, Neil offers that some of his answers were quite lengthy—a lesson in tailoring shorter answers for the radio, where time is precious.

“We’re taught how to speak with patients and not how to speak with media,” Benusic told J-Source after the interviews were over.

Journalism students also benefit from the program. Smith, a second-year Master of Journalism student who has now done the program twice, is doing her major research project about health issues. “It puts a bit of a human face on sources in a weird way,” she said, adding that getting to know a dozen or so doctors personally is source-mining for her.

The program can also help calm nerves about interviewing medical and science professionals. “My assumption is that it should be a little bit more comfortable for them because these residents are students too,” Neil said, albeit students who are already doctors. Benusic said he appreciated that the journalism students giving feedback were learners as well, because it created a safe space for learning.

Neil said that after the day was done, the doctors took the students out for drinks—evidence perhaps, of friendly bonds born from breaking down the intimidation factor.

H.G. Watson can be reached at hgwatson@j-source.ca or on Twitter.

H.G. Watson was J-Source's managing editor from 2015 to 2018. She is a journalist based in Toronto. You can learn more about her at hgwatson.com.