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Gaining trust proves key in reporting on Central Valley’s STD crisis

Gaining trust proves key in reporting on Central Valley’s STD crisis

Picture of Diana Aguilera
Antonio Jauregui shares his experience with lack of sexual education in high school. His family expected him not to ask questions, and his school provided little answers fueling the STI crisis.

In the farm-rich San Joaquin Valley, residents are faced with a harsh reality: poverty, high unemployment rates, and a lack of basic services. And then add on bad air, foul water, and California’s ongoing drought. These factors make the Central Valley one of the unhealthiest places to live in the state, creating health problems and inequalities for many of its residents.

This struggle is clear in Fresno County, in the heart of the San Joaquin Valley, especially when it comes to sexually transmitted infections (STI). The county, home to nearly a million people, has the second highest rate of chlamydia infections in the state, along with the highest rate of gonorrhea infections in the nation among young women. At the same time, rates of HIV and syphilis are increasing.

When I first learned about the overall problem of sexually transmitted infections in the county, I did not realize the full extent of the situation. The STI crisis has now reached such an alarming level that state health officials are getting involved. For the first time, the California Department of Public Health sent a team of experts to Fresno. In September they met with local health providers in hopes of reducing the alarming rates of chlamydia, especially in teens and young adults.

It wasn’t until I spoke with community health leaders when I realized the STI crisis was a bigger story than I thought. With Fresno County home to some of the highest rates of STIs in the state, health officials are dealing with a big hurdle: lack of funding and budget cuts. As community leaders like Toni Harrison said, “We’re hanging on by a thread.” Connecting with community organizers was an essential first step in reporting my fellowship project. Most of the leaders I spoke with had been working for decades at their jobs and they had great connections to other sources.

I then turned my attention to exploring sexually transmitted infections among teens. One of the most challenging obstacles throughout my project was gaining people’s trust, especially young teenagers. For my second story, I focused on the connection between STIs and the lack of sexual education in Fresno Unified, the fourth-largest school district in California. I spoke with doctors from UCSF Fresno who supported restoring sex education programs, since Fresno Unified students have the highest rates of chlamydia and gonorrhea of all Fresno County school districts, according to the Fresno County Department of Public Health.

But for this story I knew that I wanted to focus on a teenager and his experience with sex education. Through a local organization called Fresno Barrios Unidos, I met with 18-year-old Antonio Jauregui. Since I knew this was a sensitive topic, I first met with Jauregui without any microphones or recorders. This first visit helped establish trust and allowed him to open up more in our second meeting. Even though reporters have heard this on more than one occasion, the best advice is to let those you’re interviewing tell the story.

“Just in my household, questions about sex, birth control or relationships — they don't really come up, and if you do have a question you're expected to go somewhere else,” he said.

This helped prepare me for the series’ third and final story: exploring the issue of sexually transmitted infections in rural communities, where many of the residents are undocumented and don’t have health insurance. As health experts told me, residents don’t tend to talk about this topic with others, especially to reporters.

Along with a health volunteer, I traveled to Mendota, the cantaloupe capital of the world and home to many farmworkers. We headed to the Westside Pool Hall where workers, the majority of them men, go to unwind from their workday and relax on weekends. I joined volunteer Gaby Bustos as she passed out condoms and provided education about STIs. We weren’t sure how the workers were going to react to us being there, but here are a few tips that might help reporters when they encounter this type of a situation:

  • Be honest: I told the owner of the pool hall the story I was working on and he actually ended up being a great source for my story. He also encouraged me to speak with workers inside the hall and facilitated conversations.
  • Develop a good flow: When I first reached out to farmworkers, I started the conversation in a light manner. Find ways you can make the person feel comfortable but also get the work done.
  • Find a good location: Since I knew workers were going to be a bit hesitant to talk about sexually transmitted infections, I suggested any interviews take place outside the pool hall, so as to give the person some distance from the other men.
  • Listen and react: Quite often reporters find themselves thinking of the next question they’re going to ask during an interview. But remember to listen to what the person is saying and if something triggers a question, ask. Or if the answer makes you react in a certain way — perhaps you’re surprised by the answer — it’s okay to react to it. Often times, that’s when the person says something in return and the comment ends up being the best quote of the interview.

Finally, use all of your available resources, including the knowledge of the Center for Health Journalism team. They will help guide and connect you with experts in the topic you’re working on. Above all, be passionate about your work – every step of it, including research, interviews, and writing – because that will reflect in the quality of your series. As for me, I will keep reporting on this topic beyond the original series because I realized it’s something that really impacts the health of residents in the Central Valley. And since there’s minimal funding to tackle this issue, it’s a story that needs to be told.

**

Read the stories in Diana's fellowship project here.

[Photo by Diana Aguilera/Valley Public Radio]

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