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Our "Expanding Health" Conference Provokes Insights

Our "Expanding Health" Conference Provokes Insights

Picture of Robert Duffy

Dear Beaconites,

I was tickled that Margie Freivogel passed the Editor’s Weekly baton to me as she flew off to New England this week because I spent an energizing and inspiring day Tuesday on the other side of America, out in Los Angeles, at a conference on community health coverage sponsored by the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.

Journalists, advocacy organizations and funders came together to celebrate accomplishments, to exchange ideas and to discuss problems facing journalists in covering health. The program was intense, but because everyone in the room shares a commitment, one way or another, to thorough, in-depth, research-based coverage of the vast and complicated human landscape, the intensity was welcome, energizing and often inspiring.

When my colleagues and I began publishing the Beacon almost five years ago, our intention was to provide thorough coverage of as much of that complex landscape as possible, and to cover it with a recognition that human activity does not exist in isolation, and that context is key to a rich understanding of human culture and events.

The multi-faceted subject of health was given the highest priority in our discussions because it is fundamental. And in this region, it is also the financial lifeblood. Beyond that, health – well-being is something all of us say we want – is a contentious issue. We agree we want to be, as a people, healthy, but we differ on the mechanisms involved in achieving good health, not to mention the question of how to make it available to all.

Science, money and politics stimulate these discussions and disagreements. Thus, to give the general issue of health any less than extraordinary prominence and 360-degree attention would reveal an abdication of responsibility.

Recognition of the critical importance of health coverage prevailed Tuesday at the Annenberg School’s conference, “Expanding Coverage: News and Information to Enhance Community Health.” The serious tone of the meeting was established first thing when Robert K. Ross, M.D., president and CEO of the California Endowment, welcomed us. He brought up the necessity of connecting the dots between early childhood emotional and physical trauma with conditions that present themselves as mental and physical pathologies in adults. Good journalism delivers conversations such as that from the academy to the public.

But there were more subtle discussions also –  discussions one might not regard as “health.” For example, Chris Amico, co-founder of Homicide Watch in Washington, discussed responses to his organization’s commitment to “covering every murder in the District of Columbia.” Amico’s work has the capacity to go beyond sensationalism and to permit expression of the consequences a murder generates in families and communities, and how one incident can consume vast amounts of human resources and capital. Hearing Amico talk confirmed my conviction that violence is as much a public health issue as it is a criminal justice issue, and deserves discussion as such.

Anne Rolfes was on the panel with Amico and, again, her work might not immediately be recognized as health-based. She is founder and executive director of the Louisiana Bucket Brigade, based in New Orleans. The brigade monitors and makes data available on pollution from the petrochemical industries in Louisiana and offshore in the Gulf of Mexico. At the heart of this organization’s innovative and provocative work is generating data that demonstrate the effects of environmental pollution on public health. Good journalism takes information such as this, weighs it and tests it, and makes it available to the public in one form or another.

Kate Long, a freelance journalist, presented her work for the Charleston, W.Va., Gazette, on obesity. Her crusading stories have brought about genuine changes in attitudes about obesity. While healthy eating and exercise were part of her journalistic mix, of perhaps greater consequence were her revelations about connections between obesity and diabetes and cardio-vascular disease.

Hearing about Long’s work was important for me. In 2013 the Beacon will embark on a series of articles and public events, supported by the Missouri Foundation for Health, on exactly the same topic. Long’s work and the community values it furthers are not only informative but also inspiring.

Another health issue was discussed – and that’s the health and sustainability of not-for-profit organizations such as the Beacon.

The Annenberg School brought together on a panel a blue-ribbon group of representatives of foundations and grant-making organizations interested in the world of journalism and American life. Although the common perception of foundations and grant-makers is as sources of inexhaustible funds, their role is far greater and more nuanced because they distribute not only money but also research-based information and strategic development advice. They are in the survival business. Their work, and the information they have to share, are invaluable to nonprofit organizations, such as the Beacon.

In our short institutional lives, we’ve come from being regarded as start ups (and maybe as upstarts!) to being recognized as contributing members of the communities we serve and as champions of reporting that goes beyond superficiality and sensationalism. 

We’ve achieved a certain prominence in the world of American journalism, and we’re proud that you, by reading us and supporting us financially, have provided the encouragement and wherewithal to build a strong reputation in this region and beyond it. It was good to hear from others that we’ve earned respect for innovative work we’ve done, work presented both on our website and out in the community with “Race, Frankly,”  “Beacon and Eggs,” “Dream Girls” and other outreach efforts.

When respected members of the world in which we do our work offer approbation, we’re deeply gratified. And although there was plenty to learn at the Annenberg Center, good news about our health was a very good and an entirely gratifying reason to make the journey to Los Angeles, and it’s with a genuine sense of pride that I bring good news about us home to you.



This post originally appeared in the St. Louis Beacon

Photo Credit: courtesy of Gus Ruelas


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