PATRICK BOYLE: Hi, I'm Patrick Boyle, the senior staff writer at AAMCNews. I've been a journalist for half a century, and at the AAMC, I write about any issue that comes up in medical education or medical care or medical research. I've tended to focus on research and data and also on children and families.
AARON DILLARD: Well, thank you so much, Patrick, for joining us on today's episode of “Ask an Expert,” where we asked people around our community their questions for you. So, let's jump right in. When did you fall in love with journalism slash, aka, the First Amendment, and how did that inspire you to get into writing?
BOYLE: You know, Aaron, I always wanted to make a difference. Early on, I wanted to be a difference maker as a kid. I figured I was going to do that by becoming a lawyer or becoming president. Full disclosure I did neither one. But I also at the same time loved stories, storytelling, and reading. And I started to just fall in love with writing at a pretty early age in middle school, was encouraged by teachers.
I could tell you my first writing award was in middle school and I won an award for filling in the speech bubbles on a cartoon about a fish. And so I got this. I got a fish tank and all this stuff. And I thought, Wow, he can make a living at this. So, I went on to join the newspapers in high school and college, and I really felt inspired by how reporters could make a difference.
I grew up during a time of the Watergate scandal, All the President's Men, the books and the movies. And I was very much influenced by reporters changing their world. I had some fortunate experiences early in my career where some things I did, both in college and in a professional level, had — made, created some small changes in people's lives, made people's lives better.
So, I decided that journalism was the way to go. It was fun. I could tell stories, and if I were lucky, I help people.
DILLARD: Awesome, Awesome. That that's an amazing story, Patrick, and congratulations on that award. That's I mean, that's truly — the creative mind at that age, we don't really know, you know, it's just we're having fun. And you had fun. Yeah. And ultimately, you know, you realize, hey, this is something fun that I could do for my career, within that pathway.
Every career has its challenges, right? So, what are some of the challenges or opportunities that came with writing about medical education for AAMC compared to when you worked at the newspaper? And what are the things that you've enjoyed the most, you know, in getting over those challenges?
BOYLE: Right. I think the biggest challenge is that in any conversation I'm in, I am by far the stupidest person in the conversation. You know, I talk to people because of who we cover and who we talk to, everybody knows more about medicine and about science and about research. So, and there's a lot of very dense scientific information that as a journalist, you have to understand, even though we don't write in that way.
So being able to understand that well enough to then kind of convert it to the language for regular people like me is a really big challenge. The great thing about writing for AAMCNews and about our people — and I mean people in the medical field — is they are incredibly patient about this. I've never met — in my four years here — I have not had anybody give me a hard time about not understanding something or having to go back and say, OK, can if I'm hearing you correctly, you saying this and having them steer me the right way. And that's unusual. I've been snapped at by many people in my life as a journalist who felt I didn't know what I was doing, I didn't understand them, I'm taking their time. But the physicians and the administrators and the scientists I've talked to, including people really at the top of their field, have been incredibly patient and explain things to me really well. We have subject matter experts here at the AAMC to review my articles. So, it's a joy working with them and they very gently see me in the right direction.
DILLARD: Awesome. You mentioned — one of the in what you said, you mentioned patience, that you have been graced in, you know, in asking your various questions. In a recent article that you posted, you talked about some of the challenges that campuses are facing right now with students and the First Amendment and being open to dialog. What do you think educators and in these fields can do to extend those graces of patience to the students to allow them to have more open-ended conversation?
BOYLE: Yeah, I think the thing they have to do is try to — I hate to use the word educate people, but let's say this way — instill the value of not just free speech, because everybody loves free speech when they're the ones talking, but it's really about tolerant listening. Right now, we do have a culture where people are very impatient with each other. You've mentioned patience. A lot of our leaders in media and politics are delegitimizing other points of view, not basing their opinions on facts, getting very hot with people. And we have to tone down, basically, the level, the color, so to speak, and the heat. So, there are a lot of college administrators who see this, and they're having conversations with students, but not just, Hey, you have to listen. When, for instance, in one school in Colorado, when some pro-choice students complained that some pro-life speakers should not be allowed on campus to speak, she said, No, you're not allowed to do that. As a medical student in particular, you have to listen to people. You’re gonna have to listen as a doctor. So, let's figure out how you do a counter-protest, so to speak, and you get your voice heard as well. And you attend this thing and you listen. There are schools that are doing a symposium where they bring in speakers and they even have debates, where people take both sides of an issue and then the students get involved. I think you have to model that kind of thing and the schools are modeling that, but you have to show students that tolerant listening doesn't mean you have to agree with everything people say, doesn't mean you even have to give some of the opinions credibility if they're really based on nothing. But you have to hear people out and they're going to show examples of how to do that.
DILLARD: Wonderful. Within the context of how you go about your writing. What are the ways that you keep things simple for your audience in a very complex medical arena where terms and words are potentially difficult to say or even understand or what they mean and all of those things. How do you simplify it for your audience to help engage them to ensure that they're getting the most out of what you're trying to write about?
BOYLE: Yeah, I start right at the top. That's a great question, and I start with the opening. When I interview people and I explain to them who our audience is. Although a lot of doctors and researchers read our material, a lot of our views are also from the general public looking for credible medical information. So they come to the AAMC. We have to remember that. So, I tell them we don't get too much into the weeds on cellular structures and what bacteria does, but I need to understand it. So go ahead and explain it to me. But we try to stay away from jargon, for instance. I also make sure to kind of state things back to people. So, I'm interviewing you as a scientist. I might say, OK, if I hear you correctly, you're saying this and you can — I put it in writing the words and you can tell me if I'm wrong or right. And that helps a lot. We also do fact checking and we send things back to the sources. We have subject matter experts here, and they're very good at recognizing that we have to remember who we're writing for. A lot of times I think I'm writing for me. And if I understand it, that's great. If I can't understand it, I assume other people don't. And when I have it read by our team at AAMCNews, we're very good at saying, Look, you know what? I might be able to figure this out, but I can't. And I don't think we need to get this deep. It’s going to throw people off. So, we are always remembering the — what you might call today the end user, that is a reader and is a regular person looking for medical information, science information. Am I helping them with this explanation or not?
DILLARD: OK, wonderful. Well, that's a perfect segue way to kind of ask my last question. And if that's if you could give a piece of advice to an aspiring writer, whether they want to get into print, you know, newspaper, online, or medical education writing, what would you offer them?
BOYLE: I’d give them the advice I heard on my first journalism symposium in high school from a gruffy old editor who was up on a podium, his tie loose and coffee stains on his shirt. And he said, Read. Read everything you can get your hands on. I don't care if it's a menu. I don’t care if it’s a flyer somebody gave you. I don't care if it’s a novel that you don't like and somebody handed it to you.
There's a couple of reasons for this. One, as a journalist, you want to expand your cultural literacy. You just want to know a little bit about a lot of things — sports, medicine, science, history. The other thing is you really begin to absorb different writing styles and you get to see how different things are handled. So, look, if I'm sitting in my dentist's office and People magazine is sitting on that table — I am not the least bit interested in People magazine, but I read People magazine. I want to see what those folks are saying and what's going on out there. So I would say whether it's books or anything in front of you, the ads on the subway, just get in the habit of reading things.
DILLARD: That's great advice. I definitely would agree with that 1,000%. The more I read, the more words I'm exposed to. Your articulation and vernacular grows, your knowledge grows, your ability to communicate with all different types of people or all different types of levels. Just expands. So, thank you so much, Patrick, for joining us today. I truly, truly, truly appreciate your time. Patrick Boyle is our staff writer for AAMCNews. And if you are part of our community and have a question for our next expert, be sure to follow us on @AAMCToday on X, formerly known as Twitter, or Instagram. And you can also join our community at Communities.AAMC.org. Join us for the next episode of “Ask an Expert.” Thanks so much.
BOYLE: Thank you.
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