At USC, A New Center for Health Reporting

Published on
April 28, 2010

During its six-month pilot project, the California HealthCare Foundation Center for Reporting on Health at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism quietly produced in-depth journalism with California newspapers. Now, the Center has gone public with a new website and high-profile hires, including editor-in-chief David Westphal. Also hired: a managing editor and three reporters.

We are enjoying getting to know the reporters at the Center, which is located down the hall from us in an Annenberg outpost in the Southern California city of Alhambra. And we look forward to chances for collaboration. In its pilot period, the Center's staff ended up working with two California Endowment Health Journalism Fellows. Ryan Sabalow, a reporter at the Redding Searchlight, blogged about his experience writing about California wildfires. Barbara Anderson, of the Fresno Bee, produced a project on Diabetes in the Central Valley with the Center's help.

Overseeing the center is Michael Parks, USC Annenberg Professor of Journalism and Pulitzer Prize-winning former editor of the Los Angeles Times. I recently had a chance to talk with him about the Center, which is supported by a nearly $3.3 million grant from the California HealthCare Foundation. Here's our conversation, which has been edited for clarity and length.

Q: How did this project first get started?

A: At the (California HealthCare) Foundation, they wondered how to increase awareness and discussion of health policy issues. They've commissioned many studies, but most don't get a lot of traction outside of the audiences for which they're intended: experts and policymakers. They commissioned a study [on starting a health news center] and asked me to evaluate the study. I gave them some comments, then they asked me to run it. The goal is to do high quality journalism with partner news organizations on health care, health delivery and health policy issues,  to increase awareness and public discussion of these issues, and to promote solutions to those issues.

Q: Why work with partner news organizations? Why not just do the journalism yourself?

A: It didn't seem to me or my colleagues at (CHCF) that we could promote all those things within communities unless they're in the newspapers of those communities. What's the best way to do that? That's to work with editors who know their communities very well, with the journalists at those newspapers and eventually with public broadcasters. California communities are different. The issues in Redding aren't the same in Escondido or, say, Hemet.  That was the idea behind working with partner news organizations. We wanted not just to add capacity but to build capacity.

Q: How do you or the media outlets come up with story ideas?

A: The way editors do, by looking at what's happening in those communities but also by looking at developments in policy and research. We always have a half-dozen terrific ideas when we go to a newsroom. The editors there have even better ideas. It's a partnership.

Q: What are benefits and challenges of partnering so closely with a media outlet to report the story?

A: The journalists who work there know their communities. Secondly, we want those news organizations [to invest in] the mission of improving reporting about health policy issues. That is easier to get if they're involved. They make a tremendous investment in the staff time, in the news hole (the space in the paper they give us) and in the follow-through. In a number of cases, they've hosted forums and discussion boards about the projects. We've been very pleased with partnerships and pleased to be invited back.

Q. Can you give some examples of how the Center's work has influenced policy discussions or changed policy?

A: After the Redding Searchlight (published a project on) what happens to your lungs after seasonal forest fires, the fire service said, "let's do this a better way." So they have a different approach now on how they're going to fight forest fires. We worked with the North County Times in northern San Diego county to examine governance of a hospital district (where the) outcomes weren't as good for their patients. The reason, our reporting showed, was the governance of the district. That led to a grand jury investigation and a recommendation that things be fixed. In Merced, we worked to assess the impact of mental health in the area from all the foreclosures, and that has led to community discussion, including a forum sponsored by the newspaper about what can be done.

We worked with the Santa Cruz Sentinel last year, looking at the question of where Medicare patients are getting their healthcare because doctors in Santa Cruz county were turning Medicare patients away. They were going into Silicon Valley, where doctors were getting paid more because the government thinks Santa Cruz is rural (and cheaper). Seniors were getting basic health care from places like Planned Parenthood because they didn't impose restrictions (on Medicare patients). Even the president of the county medical association wasn't taking new Medicare patients. That led the Congressman from Santa Cruz to raise the issue in the Medicare debate, and (House Speaker Nancy Pelosi) is setting up a commission because [the issue] is national in scope. There was public discussion of a question of national importance. We'll see what the result is.

Q: What topics are you now focusing on?

A: One of the big broad issues is what happens to health care in California as result of (health reform) legislation in Washington. How can we tell that story in terms of the lives of Californians?

Q: Will you ever use freelance submissions?

A. Yes. We have a significant budget for freelancers. We will look at freelancers. But we are just two months into having our senior writers out there as staff reporters. Freelancers can contact David Westphal at

Q. Do your staff reporters live in the local community when they are working on a project?

A: They live there during the week and sometimes come back on weekends. We live in the communities, we work in the newsrooms of our partner publications. We do have two offices, one in Alhambra and the other in the USC office in Sacramento.

Q. Some concerns have been raised in the blogosphere that your recent hires, while all excellent journalists, do not have health reporting experience per se. What is your response to those concerns?

A. We're not doing stories on medical science. We're actually doing stories about health policy and how health care is delivered. Our reporters have experience covering Katrina, forest fires, the environment immigration, poverty and demographics, and have covered policy at the national, state and regional levels. I understand those comments. It's not that we didn't look for people with backgrounds in covering medicine, but the experience of working in local communities and understanding the health issues of local communities is very relevant. (Editor in Chief) David Westphal covered health reform in the Clinton era. I'm not defensive about this; we would have liked the whole package. At the same time, we intend to be a learning organization. We'll devote at least a day a month to seminars and workshops on health issues of all sort. We'll be learning all the time, because nobody has all this down. It is a vast field and evolving all the time.

Q: Anything else we haven't yet talked about?

A: Our commitment to solutions-based journalism, which is  not to propose solutions but to have the same vigor in reporting on solutions and who's advocating them as we do reporting on problems. We also want to provide communities with materials they need to engage in discussions about health policy issues. So much good reporting stops when the problem is laid on the table. We want to go to the next step - who's proposing solutions? What are their biases? What are the  solutions? We'll engage the community in its search for solutions.