An Eye-Opening Visit to Watts

Published on
October 8, 2009

National Health Journalism Fellows today toured Watts and came away with a more nuanced understanding of the health and socioeconomic issues facing this economically stressed but still hopeful Los Angeles community. At the Watts Labor Community Action Committee Center in the heart of Watts, Fellows learned about health disparities and HIV/AIDS among blacks from public health officials, policy experts, community leaders and journalists. WLCAC Volunteer Center Director Zakiya Kyle then led the Fellows on a tour around the district, capped by a visit to the famous Watts Towers created by artist Simon Rodia.

Dr. Maxine Liggins, an area medical director with the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health who oversees public health in Watts and the neighboring communities of Willowbrook and Lynwood, described the health of its residents. The news, with a few notable exceptions, was grim.

The district has the youngest, poorest, most diverse, least insured and fastest growing population in Los Angeles County. Heart disease rates here are nearly twice as high as those in Malibu and Santa Monica, a more affluent region of Los Angeles County that Liggins also oversees. Rates of teen births are far higher than anywhere else in Los Angeles, and infant mortality is higher.

Fresh, healthy food is difficult to come by, so that the advent of a new farmers' market, which Liggins helped establish, was hailed as a boon to the health of area residents, particularly because vendors there accept WIC coupons and electronic benefits transfers of food stamps and other food aid.

Watts has long been a largely African American community, but its demographics in recent years have shifted dramatically with the influx of Latino immigrants. The district now is about 37 percent black, Liggins said.

Liggins cautioned journalists to look critically at the statistics she presented. For example, about 87 percent of the area's children eat breakfast, leading to improved health and better learning compared to children who don't. But most of those children are eating subsidized breakfasts at their school, she said.

In a panel on HIV/AIDS in the African American community, documentary producer Renata Simone, who produced The Age of AIDS for PBS' Frontline, shared what she had learned in her many years of covering the disease.

1. Watch your language: "Even with the most simple word, like victim or infection, we have to be really careful of what words we use and how we use them. It's hard to get access to people when you use the wrong language. You don't want to say AIDS victim ever, you want to say person living with AIDS or person living with HIV.

2. "Never underestimate how much time you need for preparation. You're dealing with incredibly incendiary issues."

3. "Don't overestimate the learning curve of your audience." In a recent Kaiser Family Foundation survey, 75 percent of people surveyed thought you could get AIDS from mosquitoes.

4. Don't underestimate the importance of a personal story to link these issues. "You can only cover AIDS by braiding together the medical level, the personal level and the social level."

5. Finally: leadership is crucial, stigma really hurts, and prevention works. "In a nutshell, that's what I know about covering AIDS."

The Rev. Clyde W. Oden, Jr., Senior Pastor of Bryant Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church, who with Rand Health researcher Kathryn Pitkin Derose spoke about African American churches' role in educating residents about HIV/AIDS, echoed Simone's point about the need for a compelling narrative.

"Write in the gray, not in the black and white," Oden said, referring to the nuance necessary for reporters to understand their subjects' health and lifestyle decisions. "The personal stories are so important to tell rather than the statistics. When you get to know an individual and their story, what seemingly is irrational starts to make sense. We who are in the business of shaping opinion, we look top down rather than bottom up. The goal is to look at the story from the bottom up. People aren't crazy. Their behavior may seem irrational from the top down, but if you're looking from the bottom up, it makes more sense."