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Finding local solutions: Lessons on managing expectations and letting the story unfold

Finding local solutions: Lessons on managing expectations and letting the story unfold

Picture of Dana Ullman
(Photo by Kevin Verbeem via Flickr/Creative Commons)
(Photo by Kevin Verbeem via Flickr/Creative Commons)

By Kate Maxwell and Dana Ullman

Our reporting series explored some of the challenges of accessing health care services in Mendocino County, especially during the pandemic, and sought to identify what solutions our community might implement moving forward. As we embarked on the project, however, we were quickly met with the shifting realities of COVID-19 on a weekly, sometimes even daily, basis, that caused us to change our plans and focus.

While we initially intended to cover underreported health stories about the Latinx and Indigenous communities in Mendocino County, we also wanted to use this fellowship to learn more about our readers. Using an information needs survey in Spanish and English, which we distributed digitally and via postcards in different targeted locations, our project sought to offer in-depth reporting guided by input from our community. We had nearly 300 responses, which we then used to identify sources, story tips, and shape the focus of our series, as well as inform our outlet’s editorial strategy moving forward.

In combing through all the responses, the issues most important to the community were wildfire and emergency response (84%), followed by drought and water issues (64%). Health was third at 58%. 

As the pandemic unfolded, our stories shifted to reflect the hidden epidemics and issues facing Mendocino County that were eclipsed by pandemic coverage, guided by the topics highlighted by our reader survey. We were able to illuminate stories in Mendocino County that impacted and connected people of distinct backgrounds with the whole community. Our reporting revealed:

  • 48.8% of all COVID-19 cases at the time of our reporting have been recorded in the Latinx community, who make up only 27.18% of the county’s population. We found that this was in part due to a lack of public health information in Spanish, potentially also a consequence of a housing shortage countywide that pushed families into shared living situations. Promotores de Salud were a lifeline for the Latinx community, filling in gaps of health disparities by providing critical information and support, particularly for monolingual Spanish speakers.

  • Harm reduction providers continued to battle the opioid epidemic during the COVID pandemic with several overdoses occurring in the county jail. A culture shift in the way addiction is being addressed through harm reduction models prompted advocates and service providers to launch the first medication-assisted treatment program in the county jail.

  • Suicide rates skyrocketed during the pandemic in Mendocino County: In 2020, there were 34 suicides in Mendocino County, a dramatic increase of 70% from the previous year. Indigenous communities are addressing the Native youth struggling with mental health issues in innovative ways, namely giving youth a platform to have agency on the reservation through an inter-tribal youth council.

  • The pandemic exacerbated housing instability in Mendocino County and its impact on public health especially for essential workers. Low- and moderate-income residents are facing great challenges with the rising costs of living expenses amidst a changing economy.

  • Birthing parents struggled to access perinatal services after the closure of a labor and delivery center, opting for c-sections and missing appointments. Parents were stressed by the long drives and high costs of accessing health care while pregnant, mirroring a national trend in dwindling maternal health care infrastructure.

  • Data sharing between county officials and tribal governments is lacking; data on many of the topics we looked at remains inadequate due to misclassifications and structural racism. Researchers and journalists play a vital role in data collection and addressing this gap.

Time was a persistent challenge. We are a small team with heavy workloads and unprecedented levels of breaking news due to COVID-19 and wildfires. Arbitrary deadlines don’t always work with stories unfolding and building trust, but the scope of our stories had to adjust to grant timelines and the availability of staff and sources. This was particularly true working with local tribal communities — data was sometimes difficult to obtain, and public safety considerations with the pandemic also limited in-person events and opportunities to connect.

It is paramount to take the time needed to build relationships in communities that have been marginalized, experienced historical trauma and misrepresentation in other media outlets. We ultimately chose to prioritize developing trusted relationships over specific funding or publishing deadlines.

Another challenge we found was that producing stories in tandem bilingually was a process unto itself. It was quite revealing how much critical public health information is not available in languages other than English. One focus was making sure we were able to distribute our stories to Spanish speaking residents, and we partnered with MendoLatino, a local community radio program, to develop bilingual stories, build community engagement, and distribute this series and other translated health coverage. We began a pilot project using Subtext in order to better develop these relationships and improve our distribution of bilingual coverage; it highlighted the need for ongoing reliable Spanish language original reporting and engagement moving forward. 

Some more tips for others undertaking similar local news projects in their community:

Get those FOIA and public records requests in early: We really had to plan how and when to contact people. It was helpful to start these conversations early so we could build the relationship throughout the timeframe.

Find your guide, and increase your chances by saying yes to everything, showing up to as many meetings as your schedule allows and always following through with sources. For each story, there was always a gatekeeper or someone who got what we were doing and helped connect us to those who might be interested in sharing their story. Even if they weren’t quoted in the piece, or ended up not wanting to participate, we followed-up on every number or email she was given.

Find your main character and let the story shape itself around their experience: In the harm reduction piece, Shawn Horn is such an expert on harm reduction with his lived experience that Dana chose to weave the data and chronology around his story.

Set up interviews with sources and officials early and then circle back to them. It was helpful to have multiple conversations throughout my reporting with experts and officials. As the story developed I would circle back to them and ask what they thought. This helps to make sources in general feel engaged with and trust the reporting process.

Think about visuals up front, not as an afterthought. Writers and photographers should work in tandem throughout the reporting process.

Make sure your coverage plans are developed with and for the communities you are serving. Whether you are listening to residents’ information needs to connect them with essential resources, prioritizing the stories they think are important, or asking how they prefer to get their local news, this approach will ensure your coverage is useful and valuable to your sources and audience, and make sure your reporting will actually deliver impact and serve your readers.

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