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Committing Acts of Journalism and Public Health

Committing Acts of Journalism and Public Health

Picture of Michelle Levander

The Internet and social media have a way of upending professional conventions and giving rise to new models.  As traditional boundaries blur, some unique collaborations have emerged between cutting-edge journalists and public health practitioners. I've been fascinating by some of these projects, which have yielded new insights, ground-breaking stories and new ways of connecting with the public. 

Journalists attending the Journalism Innovations III conference this Friday in San Francisco will have a chance to learn more about some of these efforts at a panel I will be moderating on behalf of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at USC Annenberg's School of Communication and Journalism. As I plan for the panel, I'd welcome your thoughts – either online or offline -- about these new ways of thinking about health journalism. (I also encourage you to check out the Innovations panel hosted by Health Journalism Fellow Bernice Yeung called "Data to Diamonds: How to Mine Data, Build Maps, and Generate Great Story Ideas along the Way" on Saturday, May 1).

In one featured example, reporters Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman at the Bay Area News Group, working closely with the Alameda County's Public Health Department, produced "Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters." The series just won the Edgar A. Poe Award of the White House Correspondents Association, to be awarded by President Obama this weekend. For both Alameda County's Health Department and the newspaper chain – the connections made in the story between health and social environment were unconventional and indisputable. Bohan and Kleffman worked closely with Anthony B. Iton, M.D., J.D., MPH and Sandra Witt, Ph.D., who heads up Alameda County Health's Policy, Planning and Health Equity program. "This four-part series was inspired by pioneering work at the Alameda County Public Health Department ," the reporters wrote. "Its then-head, Dr. Anthony Iton, wanted to gather hard evidence on what he knew was true: The poorest among us live shorter lives, and are burdened disproportionately by chronic diseases from childhood onward."

The original data analysis conducted by the Alameda Public Health Department for Bay Area News Group provided the intellectual underpinning for the series.  The reporters took it from there, distilling into simple and compelling prose ideas that had previously held sway primarily in progressive academic and policy circles. The prize judges were impressed by the results:

"Through extensive use of county health records, Bohan and Kleffman stand conventional wisdom on its head, providing powerful evidence that variations in disease rates and life expectancies between neighborhoods in Alameda County, Calif., are not--as widely assumed--the result of poor people making bad choices about diet and exercise" the Poe award judges said. 

"Rather the discrepancies stem from multiple forces that deny those living in poor communities access to the basic resources necessary to engage in a healthy lifestyle, however great their desire to do so. These powerful and poignant stories provide an important new lens that snaps the health care debate into sharp focus. While looking closely at these issues at the county level, the stories in this series have profound national and regional implications, providing strong evidence that blaming the victims is not a substitute for dealing seriously with the underlying causes of the health care crisis."

In another example, also to be featured Friday, Manoj Jain, M.D., an infectious disease specialist, a journalist and a national leader in healthcare quality, has launched a one-man public health campaign that employs journalism at its heart. He sees his three-part series this week in the Commercial Appeal as a way to inform the public about a unique online database that ranks the quality of care of every doctor in Memphis.  Since Memphis has among the lowest Internet penetration rates in the country, Dr. Jain turned to journalism to get out his message. As a leader in the local non-profit group Healthy Memphis Common Table (HMCT), funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, Dr. Jain helped to gain access to data from insurers, medical practitioners and hospitals that allowed Healthy Memphis to develop a public, online ranking system on Memphis doctors. This, in itself, is an extraordinary achievement. As far as I know, no other project has gained comparable access to local quality measures – in this case by winning the cooperation of insurers who released data on local doctors.

Another new venture – which marries public health aims with journalism – will nurture 10 citizen journalists who will report for the Oakland Tribune from East and West Oakland. They will receive training from the Maynard Institute for Journalism Education in collaboration with the Oakland Public Library and The California Endowment (the funder of ReportingonHealth). Called Oakland Voices, the project is generating a lot of excitement at the Tribune and beyond. I'm looking forward to what Maynard Institute President Dori Maynard will have to say about the connections between journalism and healthy communities. I see this project as a new way to bring her philosophy about fault lines to life.

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