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Despite Cutbacks, Ambitious Enterprise Reporting Isn’t Dead

Despite Cutbacks, Ambitious Enterprise Reporting Isn’t Dead

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Ryan White, a 2011-12 California Endowment Health Journalism Fellow and a freelance writer, will be blogging for Reporting on Health during the 2012 National Health Journalism Fellowship July 22-26 in Los Angeles. Follow his and other posts about the fellowship on Twitter at #nhjf12.

It was an enterprise reporting project of impressive dimensions, made all the more so given the background threat of cutbacks and extinction haunting newspapers across the nation. For the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel, 2011 was the year of infant mortality, and the paper made good on the pledge in story after story detailing the region’s disturbingly high rate of infant deaths and what might be done to stem them.

Consider the problem: In one especially dire Milwaukee zip code, the infant mortality rate of 19.5 deaths per 1,000 births put the neighborhood on par with Armenia. Statewide, Milwaukee’s rate of 11 deaths per 1,000 put it near Uruguay. Within the city, it was also a story about race, class and the inequities that shape health outcomes. Milwaukee’s African-American infant mortality rate, the paper reported, was three times that of the white infant mortality rate.

In November 2010, the paper began assembling its special teams unit to tackle the project: an economics reporter, an education reporter, a medical reporter, a narrative reporter, graphics and digital specialists, photographers. Prominent speakers educated the team on the issues, and the newsroom decided from the outset they “were going to own the issue” of infant mortality, as project lead Crocker Stephenson tells it.

“We were going to be a catalyst for good and lasting change,” the award-winning narrative reporter told 2012 National Health Journalism Fellowship participants during a panel Monday. “We don’t have the resources to screw around anymore. If you don’t think your story matters, then why are you writing it or doing it? If your story matters to you, make it matter to the people consuming it.”

By the end of the 14-month project, in which reporters dissected the problem and potential solutions from every conceivable angle, word had spread. Milwaukee’s mayor had declared infant mortality the number one issue for the city, infant mortality billboards were popping up along roadways, radio shows were talking up the topic and outreach efforts had begun in hard-hit communities.

The Journal Sentinel had become the lead advocate on the issue, shining a bright relentless spotlight on a problem it called “shocking” and “unacceptable.” But don’t reporters traditionally leave the advocacy role to politicians, organizers and activists? Advocacy isn’t usually part of their job description, and the idea of being outspoken advocates pressing for solutions stirred widespread unease among the fellows listening to Stephenson recap the project.

Stephenson’s main response to those who questioned the paper’s advocacy on an issue like infant mortality was that it’s not his job to advocate not for political positions but rather for what is “true.”

“We’re not advocates for a particular thing, we’re advocates for what is true,” he said. He elaborated further: “As journalists, our obligation is to pay attention and tell the truth. If something is messed up, like 19 out of 1000 children are dying in a Zip code, then let’s pay attention and tell the truth about why. You don’t have to be a liberal or a conservative to not want babies to die.”

Whether or not a news outlet is willing to take a sustained stand on an issue such as infant mortality has perhaps more to do with individual newsroom cultures than universally accepted rules on when it’s appropriate to push solutions to problems everyone agrees are problems, like infant mortality or drunk driving (the Journal Sentinel tackled the latter in 2010).

Tabling for a moment the thorny journalistic ethics that come with adding issue advocacy to your reporting bailiwick, how does a journalist in an ever-dwindling newsroom still find ways to tell ambitious stories on complicated health care topics? Time is scarce, the work extensive. Shortly after Stephenson mentioned how his editors approved him to devote an entire year to the infant mortality series, a rising chorus of fellows voiced doubt on Monday that they could get even a week off their regular beat to pursue a special project. With “do more with less” now the newsroom norm, many fellows said they struggle to imagine their outlets backing enterprise projects of half such magnitude.

While Stephenson acknowledged it as a real problem, he also wasn’t proffering any magic tips for accomplishing sustained reporting projects. “As a journalist, you have to keep within parameters of what is possible,” he said, suggesting that reporters begin by working on a small project for a few weeks, impress the editors, and see what new ideas follow. “Small successes build into bigger successes,” he said.

Another NHJF fellow who works at a prominent East Coast daily agreed that smaller projects can win over editors and coax them into supporting even more ambitious enterprise projects, newsroom resources be damned. But don’t expect editors to clear your calendar for such work.

“Still we fight every day this fact that we have to put out a paper today,” the fellow said. “When you get somewhere, it’s by finding the cracks in your day — you can make the extra phone call, start scribbling some notes, you can put in a FOIA here and a FOIA there, pretty soon you’re going to assemble something that’s really meaningful. And then you can really start to sell something.”

Image courtesy of the City of Milwaukee.

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