How Mass Communications in Public Health helps students find their voice

By Samantha Derrick

Over the course of the fall 2020 semester, despite online learning, Zoom fatigue, and tech glitches, students in Lori Dorfman’s Mass Communications in Public Health cohort learned the power of good public health messaging.

Semester after semester, Dorfman’s class is one of the most popular at the UC Berkeley School of Public Health. As part of her 2020 cohort, I can see why. Six media conglomerates own and control the majority of media in the U.S. and Dorfman impresses upon her students the outsized influence these conglomerates have on the way we perceive and think about the most pressing public health issues in our country. And, most importantly, Dorfman illustrates how public health experts can utilize the media to reframe the way we communicate the issues we deem most vital, a crucial step to help us achieve improved health outcomes in all communities.

Faculty Headshot for Lori Dorfman

Adjunct Professor Lori Dorfman

For example, the media often frames poverty or poor health outcomes in the context of individual choice rather than a natural consequence of systemic racism. But with the right tools, language, and framework, public health leaders can utilize the media to help us advance and achieve our overall strategies to improve public health.

Through applied practice and experience, Dorfman’s course provides the foundations needed to effectively use the media for Public Health Advocacy.

“The skills and knowledge I gained in media advocacy with Professor Lori Dorfman will undoubtedly serve me with the tools necessary to leverage mass media and create the bold systemic change needed to uplift the most marginalized communities in our country,” said Daniel Salas, a second-year student in the Maternal and Child Health program.

Various guest speakers were invited to speak in the class throughout the course of the semester, providing students a unique opportunity to interact with renowned journalists and public health leaders from across the country. Students then applied what they learned in class and were assigned to submit op-eds and letters to the editors as an opportunity to provide a perspective on current events or respond to news pieces covering public health events. Several student submissions were published in various outlets including the Daily Cal and the San Jose Mercury News.

Additionally, students learned techniques such as framing and social math as a tool to strengthen their public health messaging. Dorfman also reviewed other outlets often used for media advocacy, including news releases and social media platforms. For the course’s final project, students worked on teams to apply the various tools and techniques they learned in class to create a media advocacy plan for a public health issue of their choice.

“I learned that word choice and language matter deeply, and that they are a powerful tool public health advocates should know how to use in order to advance public health goals – because simply showing facts is not enough,” said Dalila Alvarado, a second-year student in public health nutrition

Taking a communications course as a public health student may seem beside the point, but it’s important for the very simple reason that if we are unable to pair our research with effective media advocacy strategies, the change we can achieve is limited.