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Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund Projects

The  Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism honors the late Dennis Hunt, a visionary communications leader and former vice president of communications and public affairs at The California Endowment, California's largest health foundation. Family members, friends and colleagues of Dennis  established the Fund after his death in 2007 in recognition of his belief that journalism could change public perceptions about community health and influence policy. Each year, five to seven journalists receive grants of $2,500 to $10,000 to undertake ambitious health reporting projects about underserved communities.

Hunt grantees have conducted scientific testing to assess "the body burden" of a family exposed to chemical hazards, crisscrossed the country to understand the impact of the Affordable Care Act and engaged ordinary people to try to halt the childhood obesity epidemic in their state.   Click on this link to watch a video that captures some of the important impacts from their work.

To help support the kind of impact journalism that we nurture at the Center for Health Journaism, click on this link to make a tax-deductible donation by credit card to the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism. Alternatively, you may send a check made out to University of Southern California, with “USC Hunt Journalism Fellowship Fund” in the memo field, to:

Office of Development and Alumni Relations
USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism

Here are summaries of some notable projects in recent years:

"Carbon Wars," Center for Public Integrity, USA Today and The Weather Channel

Much attention is being paid to the impact of fossil fuel usage on the climate, with long-term consequences for the planet. But the consumption of fossil fuels is "wreaking havoc on human health” right now, a World Health Organization has warned. 2016 National Fellow and Hunt Grantee Jamie Hopkins of the Center for Public Integrity combined data analysis with powerful storytelling and compelling visualizations to document the toll on Americans' health of industrial pollution. Hopkins and her colleagues found that a small percentage of U.S. facilities account for a third of the toxic air releases and greenhouse-gas emissions from power plants, factories and other sites and that the risk is not evenly distributed. Most affected are people who live near the nation's 22 "super polluters," and they are disproportionately poor or African American. Hopkins and her colleagues won the 2016 Thomas L. Stokes Award for Best Energy Writing from the National Press Foundation; first place for outstanding explanatory reporting from the Society of Environmental Journalisand an EPPY Award from the American Society of Newspaper Editors. 

"Toxic City," Philadelphia Inquirer and Philadelphia Daily News

Getting lead out of gasoline greatly reduced the risk of childhood lead poisoning. But in Philadelphia, thousands of children are being poisoned every year, with tragic consequences for their brains, by ingesting lead-contaminated dust and paint chips in old homes or dirt in their backyards or on their playgrounds. 2016 National Fellws and Hunt Grantees Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman documented the toll on thousands of the city's children -- lower IQs, lifelong learning and behavioral problems, seizure disorders and many other serious health effects.  Within days of publication of their  first package of stories, Philadelphia lawmakers and activists demanded action to reduce exposure. "Lead poisoning is a killer of hope, a killer of dreams,"  said State Rep. Donna Bullock, whose own 2-year-old son was found to have high lead levels in his blood. State Sen. Vincent Hughes secured a total of $125,000 in grants to fund Philadelphia's mitigation efforts. And the Philadelphia mayor announced a crackdown on landlords who fail to certify that their properties are lead-safe before renting to pregnant women or families with children 6 or younger. The second installment reported that three out of four soil samples taken in more than 100 locations  – parks, playgrounds, and backyards – near former lead smelters in Philly ahad hazardous levels of lead contamintion. They also found that many children were poisoned by lead from the soil.  As a result, the state Department of Environmental Protection did its own tests at one site, confirming the team's finding, and announced that the levels were “unacceptable” and that it had entered into a clean-up agreement with the site’s owner.  In late September 2018, as a result of resident’s complaint, the city halted demolition of an old smelter in a neighborhood that Ruderman and Laker had investigated until safeguards could be in place. In addition, two bills were introduced in the City Council to tighten demotion regulations. Lead-contaminated dust that’s generated when old buildings are demolished is a major cause of lead poisoning in soil.  Because of the extraordinary public response to their series on how lead poisoning threatens children’s futures, Ruderman and Laker are now taking a look at how often other contaminants, such as mold in schools, lead to childhood illnesses.  Laker, Ruderman and a colleague won an EPPY Award from the American Society of Newspapers Editors and a second-place award from the Society of Envionmental Journalists.

"Kids, Trauma, and New Orleans School," WWNO Public Radio

Still suffering from the after effects of the devastation and displacements caused by Hurricane Katrina, children in New Orleans also experience a high level of community violence and, often, violence in the home. Mallory Falk and Eve Troeh reported a series, “Kids, Trauma and New Orleans Schools,” for WWNO-FM, the local public radio station, on the promise of trauma-informed approaches to education in New Orleans. The reporting opened the minds of many listeners to new ways of thinking about how schools can assist children with their social and emotional needs. “The feedback was incredible and helped us feel that these are topics our listeners want to hear in our reporting,” Troeh told us. “When a project featuring vulnerable children and families gets the most web traffic of anything by far -- you know you should do more.”

"Living with Lead," City Bureau, Southside Weekly

Darryl Holliday led a team of reporters, including some youth, who produced “Living with Lead,” a special online report published by Chicago’s City Bureau and as a 20-page print section by the South Side Weekly in December 2016.  The project explained the many ways that Chicago residents are exposed to lead and why it matters. A special text-based app developed with one of the Center for Health Journalism’s community engagement grants enabled residents to check lead levels in their ZIP codes. The data on lead test results for Chicago parks and public schools that Holliday gathered for his project has been released as centralized, standardized, and searchable datasets. Besides documenting the lead problem in some Chicago neighborhoods, the report provided residents with tips about how to protect their health and get the toxin removed from their homes.

"Enduring Addiction," KUNM Public Radio

Española, a largely Hispanic and Native American community in northern New Mexico, has had the highest rate of opioid overdoses in the country for most of the last 40 years. The epidemic began with soldiers returning from Vietnam during the war and now plagues third and fourth generations. With a Hunt grant, Edward Williams of KUNM Public Radio looked at life in Española through the eyes of its children. The result was “Enduring Addiction,” a five-day radio series that culminated in an hour-long documentary.  With a community engagement grant and specialized mentoring from the Center for Health Journalism, Williams also developed an innovative community engagement strategy, which involved high school students in the storytelling, and, as a legacy, established radio reporting as a regularly available activity at the school. “The goal of the engagement project was to have the students themselves frame the story and report it as they saw it,” he told us.

 "A deadly and preventable disease," Seattle Times

More than 40  babies have died because of a rare and deadly birth defect in three Central Washington counties since 2010, and by some measure, state and public health officials' response has been sluggish.  As a result of questioning by our Fellow, JoNel Aleccia, a reporter with the Seattle Times, state Medicaid officials decided to begin paying for folic acid supplements for women of child-bearing age, rather than just pregnant women, since a folic acid deficit is linked to the condition. Here’s a package of stories on the problem and promising solutions (published in English and Spanish). We are also supported a community engagement effort that involved a large public gathering in the upstate Washington community that is most affected by the crisis.  Aleccia's reporting spurred 40 members of Congress, led by U.S. Rep. Jaime Herrera Beutler, R-Camas,  to sign a petition urging the Food and Drug Administration  to permit the fortification of corn masa, a staple in Mexican American's diet, with folic acid, which some scientists believe could reduce the incidence of neural tube defects in Hispanic babies. Two months later, the FDA took action on a proposal to permit fortification that had originally been under review for four years. 

“Children in Crisis,” Las Vegas Sun

“Children in Crisis” is a five-part series by 2015 Hunt Grantee Jackie Valley of the Las Vegas Sun explores what a doctor there calls "the polio of our generation:" an explosion in the number of children with mental illness in the Las Vegas area, and the lack of treatment options. Jackie’s first story, which ran on Nov. 17,  explored the reasons behind the growth in the number of children in Las Vegas requiring treatment for mental illness and the struggle of one determined mother to secure treatment for her troubled son.  Her second story, which ran November 24, examined the availability of mental health services in public schools. A third story, published on December 1, looked at how local emergency rooms have become a stop of last resort for many children. A public forum is scheduled for December 2 in Las Vegas.

"Seat Them Safely," The Arizona Republic

As the border reporter for the Arizona Republic, 2014 Hunt Grantee Bob Ortega had noticed the low rate of carseat usage by Hispanic parents transporting their kids.  With the help of a 2014 Dennis Hunt Fund grant, Bob spent a year on a series, "Seat Them Safely," that documented the extent of non or improper usage and the tragic consequences: Latino and Native American children dying or sustaining serious injuries at disproportionately high rates. In addition to chronicling the problem, Bob and his colleagues put together a coalition of civic and religious groups to create a stand-alone nonprofit organization to carry out an ongoing campaign of fundraising, education and outreach on the issue.  The group secured a $25,000 matching grant from a local foundation to match readers' contributions to promote safer car-seat use, training events and donations of seats.  Eight car-seat technicians took calls from parents during a telethon on Univision and reported that they were stunned by the level of requests for seats or people asking where they could have their seats checked for proper installation. The Phoenix Fire Department received more than 300 similar requests in the first three days after the series began, versus a normal daily volume of fewer than 10 calls. Horizonte, a show on the Arizona PBS, broadcast a 26-minute story about how the coalition came about and what it's impact has been. Sixonths after Ortega's project appeared, the Arizona Governor’s Office of Highway Safety announced that it would boost funding by more than $407,000 for programs to address child car seat safety in that state by providing more than 2,460 car seats to needy families.

2013 Hunt Grantee Liza Gross reported for The Nation on the potential health risks to children living near or attending schools near California's strawberry fields, which are regularly sprayed with pesticides and fungicide, some of which are known to cause cancer and birth defects. The burden falls largely on Latino children, she found.  "Ventura County had more schools and more students—over 13,000—attending classes within a quarter-mile of areas most heavily treated with potentially harmful pesticides than any other county in the state," she reported.  "But no school had higher use of these pesticides nearby than Rio Mesa High School, a fifteen-minute drive from Oxnard High, with nearly 29,000 pounds of pesticides applied within a quarter-mile of campus."

Obamacare: Where You Live Determines Your Options, Politico

Politico reporter Jennifer Haberkorn traveled to six states in 2013 to chronicle their differing approaches to the implementation of Obamacare and the expansion of Medicaid. She found startling differences.  "I had a theory that it would be a somewhat different experience in each state — but I didn’t realize how true that would be," she wrote in an essay for ReportingonHealth. "I found a person in Texas who would have qualified for coverage had the state expanded (Medicaid) and allowed his voice to tell the story of the people left without coverage. I found a New Mexico resident who got new coverage because of Medicaid and used her voice to tell the story of the newly insured. I also compared the path of two liberal states — Washington and Oregon — as they set up their health insurance exchanges. One was a success story and the other was a technological disaster. Both stories served up lessons learned and underscored how wildly different the rollout experiences were, even between two sets of leaders with similar politics."

Hunger Knows No Geographical Boundaries, PBS NewsHour

Jason Kane, a producer for PBS NewsHour, set out to show the link between food insecurity and obesity and other health problems and to help people understand why poverty can ironically lead to obesity.  He set his first story in Orange County, California, one of the most affluent counties in the United States, showing that hunger lurks everywhere. "More than 20 percent of children there – roughly 153,490 kids – were living in households considered “food insecure,” he wrote in an essay for ReportingonHealth. "That’s the government’s definition for people who don’t always have enough nutritious food available to lead healthy and productive lives. It struck me as the perfect spot for this story." Kane's piece spurred pediatricians and public health officials in Orange County to mobilize and launch an ambitious initiative to screen children for food insecurity and then refer their families to agencies that could help.  Kane's project also looked at an effort in Arkansas to teach pregnant women about the importance of eating healthily during their pregnancies and why summer is the hungriest season of the year for some American children.

"Poor Health," Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

Sean Hamill, a reporter for the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, had wondered for years where people in some of the old steel towns surrounding Pittsburgh got their health care after their local hospitals closed. With help from the Hunt Fund, his data-rich multimedia project, "Poor Health," "chronicled the failure of the remaining hospitals to provide adequate care to low-income patients and the inability of free and government-funded clinics to fill the gap." Hamill wrote in an essay for ReportingonHealth, our online learning community: "Our series revealed a simple truth: The poor continue to have difficulty accessing health care in one of the most medically advanced cities in the world. How to solve that problem is something I will continue to pursue with my current and future work." Hamill's series sparked efforts by concerned community members and medical practitioners to think about how to patch the holes in the area's frayed health care safety net.

"68 Blocks: Life, Death Hope," The Boston Globe

Steven Wilmsen, enterprise editor for the Boston Globe, directed a team of reporters to look from the inside out at the causes and impact of violence on a neighborhood. In 2013, the paper rented an apartment in the Bowdoin-Geneva neighborhood of Boston and embedded several reporters and photographers there. Bowdoin-Geneva had been wracked by gang violence for years, and no interventions seemed to help.  The resulting interactive series, "68 Blocks: Life, Death Hope," showed that the neighborhood was more than a collection of crime statistics and described a rich tapestry of community life despite the near-constant threat of violence.  The project won a first place "Salute to Excellence" award from the Association of Black Journalists, the Radio Television Digital News Association’s UNITY award and the Online News Association’s Knight Award for Public Service. It also sparked wide-ranging conversations in the neigborhood and in journalistic circles about whether embedding journalists in a disadvantaged neighborhood was an ethical approach to storytelling.  In an essay for ReportingonHealth, Wilmsen reflected on the lessons learned. "After publication, it became much clearer what had been gained, both in terms of content and good will," he wrote. "People who were featured in the series were deeply grateful for what they said were sensitive and complex depictions of the way they live and the issues they face. They, along with the vast majority of readers who wrote or called the Globe about the series, including a number who live in the neighborhood or who grew up there, said the fact that the Globe elected to live there showed a kind of commitment that was rare and that mattered."

"The Shape We’re In," The Charleston Gazette

Kate Long of The Charleston Gazette undertook a powerful yearlong exploration in 2012 of the effects of childhood obesity in her home state, West Virginia, which has the highest rates of adult and child obesity in the country. Drawing from the latest research as well as the community for successful examples of change, her 60+ story multimedia project, "The Shape We’re In," included scores of stories and multiple collaborations and prompted actions from legislators, educators and the medical establishment. As a result of the project, a local foundation committed funding to Try This West Virginia: Building Blocks for Health Communities, which Long leads today, to help community leaders share best practices. "The Shape We're In" earned the top award for public health journalism from the Association of Health Care Journalists and led to Long being named West Virginian of the Year by the West Virginia Health Kids and Families Coalition.

Understanding the Body Burden, Center for Investigative Reporting

Janet Wilson, a freelance writer, received two Hunt grants -- in 2009 and 2011 --  to undertake an innovative reporting project for the Center for Investigative Reporting and the bilingual Eastern Newspapers Group, Understanding the Body Burden. To test her hypothesis that families living downwind from industrial plants in Maywood, California, were being affected adversely by air and water-borne pollutants, Wilson teamed up with doctors and research scientists to conduct extensive “body burden” tests on the members of a representative family.  The tests found that some of the family members had traces of heavy metals in their blood, probably due to emissions from the area's industries, which put them at high risk for health problems. The project helped spur clean water legislation in California. 

"World’s Apart,"  St. Louis Beacon

One of the first Hunt grantees, Robert Joiner, a reporter for the St. Louis Beacon, produced a 20-plus story project on health disparities in St. Louis, World’s Apart, which sparked a communitywide conversation about the interplay among race, poverty and health and prompted a Missouri foundation to fund several years of health reporting by Joiner.  In the wake of the protests in Ferguson, we asked Joiner, a longtime St. Louisan, to share his perspective, and he wrote a thoughtful essay for, Moving Beyond Anger in Ferguson, about the quality of life and health issues that fueled community outrage.  


The USC Center for Health Journalism's Impact Funds provide reporting support — funding and mentoring — to journalists who think big and want to make a difference. 

Apply today for our National Impact Fund for reporting on health equity and health systems across the country. 

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