Lived experience drove this journalist to tell deeper story of racism’s legacy in health of Black Americans
(Photo by Apps Bichu/CHJ)
Kat Stafford vividly remembers the trip she made to the emergency room with her mom and older sister. She was 11 years old and had just suffered a particularly severe asthma attack during a humid and haze-filled Detroit summer.
The pediatrician who saw young Kat that day, a White man, was peppering her mom with questions. What is her diet like? Does anyone in the house smoke? (The intake form clearly noted “No.”) Perhaps the family just wasn’t following the treatment plan, he suggested.
The tension in the exam room was palpable, Stafford remembers. Her mother asked her daughters to step out of the room, where they overheard her outline for the doctor all the asthma-aggravating sources of pollution beyond her control, from the nearby factories and trash incinerator to the neighborhood’s blighted and mold-filled homes. The doctor’s reply: Why don’t you move? What do you expect in Detroit?
“We left with yet another prescription for an inhaler. And that was last time we stepped foot in that office,” Stafford recalled. “That experience left me as a young child shaking. It was something that I didn’t expect.”
The stressful encounter drove Stafford’s parents to find her another pediatrician, this time a Black woman who promptly grasped the challenges of living in Detroit and helped young Kat start a new treatment regimen that brought her asthma under control.
That firsthand experience of racism and bias in health care as a young Black girl stayed with her, helping fuel Stafford’s later interest in journalism and an award-winning career that has included stops at the Detroit Free Press, The Associated Press and her current role as global race and justice editor at Reuters. Stafford shared formative moments and hard-won insights this week during the keynote address to journalists taking part in the Center for Health Journalism's first ethnic media collaborative, which has brought together eight California outlets serving Black, Latino and Asian audiences to report on health and inequities across the state.
“It left me at a young age wondering how many other people who look like me, or who are from communities similar to mine, had similar experiences of not being heard, of their cares being tossed aside,” Stafford said.
Decades later, Stafford’s enduring question drove her to publish a rigorous, richly reported five-part AP series titled “From Birth to Death,” the product of a yearlong reporting journey “exploring how the legacy of racism in America has laid the foundation for the health inequities that Black people face.”
She was only two weeks into her new job at AP as national race and ethnicity writer when COVID-19 was declared a pandemic. It would soon inflict devastating waves of death and illness on communities of color, spotlighting health disparities in a way that refused to be ignored. “I found myself wondering how again we got to this point in our nation where even amid a global pandemic that devastated everyone, stark inequity still managed to emerge,” Stafford said.
Her quest for deeper answers to that question at AP followed the life span of Black Americans, with deeply moving and intensively researched stories on infant and maternal mortality, childhood asthma, mental health of teens, high rates of blood pressure and the disproportionate burden of Alzheimer’s disease on African American families.
“We interviewed dozens of experts, doctors, families, historians, political leaders; scoured decades-old newspaper clippings and analyzed data, which allowed us to make bold, fact-based statements about how the legacy of slavery helped lay the foundation for health inequities Black Americans still face today,” Stafford said of her reporting, which was supported by a University of Michigan Knight-Wallace Fellowship.
But the narrative power of the series comes from Stafford’s ability to bring alive the people at the heart of the stories. People like Constance Guthrie and her daughter Jessica, who is struggling with minimal support to care for her mother, who has Alzheimer’s disease. The families in Stafford’s series are suffering awful tragedies, but she still holds space in the stories for their joy and vitality as well. The reader gets to know a vibrant, loving mom who ran a beloved hair salon and “donned dazzling, colorful and flamboyant outfits to match her larger-than-life personality.” The caring portrait of her life makes the pathos of the Post-It notes now adorning her walls — reminders that she doesn’t drive anymore because she will get lost — all the more palpable.
Stafford’s own early experience of not being heard by a bias-ridden doctor makes her particularly attentive to all the ways Guthrie is time and again questioned, dismissed and denied basic care by White doctors for conditions such as a hernia and, later, a blood clot in her leg. It takes a Black doctor to order up the necessary imaging test for the hernia. It’s a level of detailed reporting that renders understandable otherwise abstract phrases such as “health care inequities.”
It’s also the kind of reporting that diverse newsrooms — including robust ethnic media outlets — are uniquely well-positioned to do. “Across the board, these communities do not receive the same quality of health care throughout their lives as White Americans,” Stafford said.
She recalled how her childhood neighborhood in Detroit started its own newsletter to better capture the challenges and beauty of living in their community, a mantle she would later pick up even as she went on to work for some of the world’s largest news organizations.
“My neighborhood newsletter no longer exists, but it was life-changing for me — seeing that newsletter get put together and watching the reporters from the local African American newspaper planted a seed of a hope and a dream that we could craft stories and coverage that centered our communities in the issues that mattered to them.”