A Radical proposal: should health journalists leave the sidelines?

Published on
September 14, 2017

A few months ago, I met with the staff of a county health department in California’s Central Valley. They shared insights on what they see as their limited role in marshaling data to achieve local health improvements, such as raising community awareness of pressing issues, informing policy and budget decisions, perhaps even using data to encourage individuals to adopt healthy behaviors.

Their persuasive powers are quite constrained. A large number of residents simply may not trust government. Others who may trust the message may not even realize that the county has a health department providing services and data. Their point: A health department – or perhaps any government agency — that’s not deeply ingrained in the day-to-day lives of people isn’t in the best position to be an effective messenger to reach communities. It’s much more realistic, they said, if they play the role of publishing and providing data, enabling others on the front lines -- faith-based organizations, neighborhood service providers, health clinics, schools, and journalists -- to transform government data into powerful messages and stories that resonate with individuals.

Staff at this health department recognized a fundamental truth about leveraging data to achieve local impact: that communities are complex information organisms, and, when functioning well, all organizations in this data ecosystem play vital and complementary roles. The question that I keep coming back to, however, is what role journalists should or could have in this local data ecosystem?  Should they simply observe from the sidelines, reporting on key decisions objectively and dispassionately simply by presenting the facts? Or, could they become active participants as part of a growing movement in communities nationwide to attack health problems collaboratively. In other words, could reporters roll up their sleeves alongside others?

Over the years, I’ve worked with dozens of communities across the country on projects to harness data to improve local health and well being. From my vantage point as a former journalist who much admires what reporters can contribute, I can think of three ways that journalists can play a more activist role – and in so doing help improve the health of the communities in which they live and work.

First, Journalists Should Be Active Participants in Community Collaboratives

There are a growing number of community collaboratives taking shape nationally to address local health needs. Here’s one list of roughly 40 such community coalitions and here’s a map noting many more. In my travels, it’s rare to find journalists who are actively engaged in such coalitions. I can appreciate that journalists prize their independence and objectivity - and rightly so. It’s no doubt a tough chasm for many journalists to cross from being an observer to a participant. However, unless journalists are integrated into local problem-solving -- that is, unless they take a seat at the table -- they run the risk of being dispassionate observers of broader health trends disconnected from the specific work needed to achieve change. In my mind, such irrelevancy doesn’t serve anyone’s interests, especially in this age when the rest of a community has already formed into working collaboratives to leverage data to achieve change.

An open-minded, community-driven journalist may be able to carve out a meaningful role, recognizing that their involvement doesn’t mean being the mouthpiece for government or anyone else. Instead, their participation can take the form of engaging in group discussions (perhaps stepping back when it comes time to advocate for or recommend actions); asking probing questions based on the broader perspective that they inherently offer; then independently translating what they learn into reporting that can crystallize trends and disparities to educate the broader public. Unless journalists are in the room as these discussions are taking place, I wonder if it will be harder for them to both develop sources and to know what issues are worth focusing on.

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Journalists Should Recognize the Unique Skills They Can Contribute

A good journalist is a natural storyteller possessing innate abilities to translate complex information into simple, relatable concepts. Coincidentally, these same communication skills that come naturally to journalists are in short supply among others in a local data ecosystem. As a government epidemiologist once observed to me, “The hardest thing for a data person to do is to speak English. The second hardest thing for that data person to do is to write English.” To that point, government agencies may have the data and possess the analytic skills to turn these numbers into a description of need, but they tend to be ineffective at telling stories. And while local nonprofits may have on-the-ground knowledge, they often lack the capacity -- time and communication capabilities -- to integrate stories with data into powerful messages.

We shouldn’t lose sight of a journalist’s ability to weave together facts and stories into a narrative that appeals to both the heart and the head, and via such data storytelling, journalists can enrich a community’s collective understanding of issues and help people form a common language to express need. In other words, a good article -- or maybe it’s a whole series -- based on facts and stories can be the kind of landmark community piece that helps create the fertile ground from which other work can grow. And the words that journalists use to describe these concepts may even become integrated into how other key players – government, nonprofits – describe what they’re doing.

Finally, Journalists Should Focus Their Reporting on Solutions, not Just Identifying Problems

One issue with community-focused data is that it’s often exposing problems – such as a growing rate of asthma; racial/ethnic differences in prenatal care; or perhaps disparities in health insurance coverage. One data analyst shared with me that she can probably come up with a hundred problems in 15 minutes from a review of local health data. She noted, however, that this exercise isn’t very helpful to the many organizations on the front lines working to address need. They don’t need to hear that the problem is actually more intense or broader than what they’re trying to combat with their already limited funds. What’s needed, this data analyst said, is a focus on enumerating solutions to the problems.

The good news is that there are now resources to help journalists find such solutions, and solutions journalism has been embraced in newsrooms and initiatives nationwide, including at the Center for Health Journalism, which provides mentoring and funding to help reporters identify ways to have impact and create momentum for change. Another leading proponent of solutions journalism, the Solution Journalism Network, has compiled a Solutions Story Tracker, which highlights reporting from journalists nationwide.

In my mind, a journalist is in a unique position to report on solutions. Local nonprofits may not have the time to step back and provide comprehensive analysis about what works in their day-to-day work. A government agency, or perhaps a funder, may opt for a more rigorous, academic approach by compiling a list of evidence-based programs – and, of course, this takes time. By contrast, a journalist can more informally surface ideas that have proven successful elsewhere and that may be worth experimenting with and iterating on locally.

Surely none of these ideas are easy for journalists to implement. If this kind of culture change is to work, ground rules might need to be established that ensure that other community participants don’t have outsized expectations for what journalists can contribute. Other questions that could emerge might be around what is on or off the record. And a newsroom conversation might need to take place on whether a role like this makes more sense for a columnist, publisher, or opinion writer than a beat writer.

The key transition is for journalists to begin to see themselves as part of - not apart from - the collaborative data work now taking place to improve community health. Once that bridge is crossed, I’m certain journalists -- as expert storytellers who can understand how to paint data on a bigger canvas -- will be able to contribute immensely to help communities leverage data to address local health issues. 

[Photo by Clint Rutkas via Flickr.]