The Importance Of Pre-Emptive Reporting

Published on
October 22, 2010

The California Health Journalism Fellowship is officially underway after our first meeting tonight, here in downtown Los Angeles. Keynote speaker and social epidemiologist Carolyn Cannuscio presented her jaw-droppingly thorough report on health in needy Philadelphia communities, and I wanted to share a few thoughts before calling it a night.

Cannuscio's report basically concluded that people in different socio-economic backgrounds think of "health" in different ways. While news reports on healthcare reform tend to center around doctors and hospital care, Cannuscio found that low-income neighborhoods classify health in terms of more simple necessities such as sanitary streets, quality housing and basic access to food. In neighborhoods plagued by crime, people were simply concerned with getting home safely at the end of the day. "Health is not a priority when basic safety is not a guarantee," Cannuscio said. Research like this certainly provides insight to why you often see increased rates of diabetes, obesity and high blood pressure in lower-income communities.

Cannuscio's research was conducted in Philadelphia, but the problem is not unique to that area. I was involved in a 2009 group project that provided on-site medical screening in a dense north Long Beach neighborhood, and on-site results showed that 41% of people screened had elevated cholesterol levels, while 42% had elevated blood pressure levels. Six people were taken to emergency rooms because of dangerous blood pressure results.

Both cases are examples of how living in a certain community may affect your lifestyle and ultimately, your health. This started me thinking about my proposed fellowship project, investigating the potential environmental effects caused by expansions to the Port of Long Beach and the Intermodal Container Transfer Facility (ICTF) railyard.

Now, in listening to other fellows describe their upcoming project plans earlier tonight, I realized that the problems in Long Beach are not unique. Cities all around California are dealing with drugs, gangs, pollution, mental health and illnesses.

One colleague caught my attention, however, by announcing that his project would be focused on pre-emptive reporting. He plans to identify a local problem, and then search the state for examples of how other cities are correcting the problem. In this way, he is not simply reporting on the issue, he's attempting to solve it. I immediately connected with this strategy. Here's how I think I can apply a similar strategy to my project.

Everyone knows about the danger of air pollution caused by thousands of ships, trucks and trains that operate in Long Beach annually. It's not like diabetes in Philadelphia - asthma attacks are not discreet, everyone can see the smog and everyone knows when schools are forced to close due to poor air quality. In fact, during a community meeting last year, many residents fought back tears as they described the toll that pollution has taken on their families. If my report reveals that air pollution poses a threat to nearby residents, it will not surprise anyone.

However, I think I can provide new information that will have future impacts on the community. Massive expansion projects planned at the port and railyard claim to be more environmentally-friendly than current operations. I think that by investigating these claims, my report can paint a picture of what the future of air quality in Long Beach will look like years from now. In a best case scenario, my report would cause potentially dangerous projects to be changed or altered for the better. This is where I believe the real value of my project lies. To acknowledge the current state of the local environment, but more importantly, inform the public of what will happen in the future.

You can follow my live updates from Friday's discussion sessions through my Twitter account @RyanZumMallen or by checking the #chjf hashtag. Some of my fellow... fellows have already been producing great commentary and I look forward to what the rest of the weekend holds in store.