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This rural county in Georgia showed me the importance of field reporting — even in a pandemic

Craft: Lessons From The Field

This rural county in Georgia showed me the importance of field reporting — even in a pandemic

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Jen Christensen
Nurses gathered for an impromptu closing ceremony as the only hopsital in rural Randolph County, Georgia closed in October, 2020.
(Photo via Jen Christensen)

An older woman stood inside the Dollar General store in rural Randolph County, Georgia, and called out as if she was on stage. “Can I pay anyone for a ride?” The woman asked a tricky question in a pandemic, when people were reluctant to share small enclosed spaces with those they did not know, and she did so without success. This is what some people must try to get around the isolated 429 square miles of this part of southern Georgia.  

Randolph has the highest percentage of households in the state without access to a vehicle. The hospital here closed in October 2020, so if someone has an accident or gets sick, the nearest emergency room is more than a half-hour drive across the state line in Alabama. The closest in-state hospital is about an hour’s drive to Albany. 

Data can tell us a lot about the predicaments people face in the health care desert that has been growing in rural America for decades. It is a part of the world where people tend to face “numerous” health disparities compared to their urban counterparts, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

Examining census figures, even before I went out the door to report, I was able to conclude that Randolph County has the highest concentration of people without transportation in Georgia. Census figures told me how vast the county is. Data from the US Department of Energy gave me the exact number of miles and time it would take for someone who needed to drive to the nearest emergency room. 

None of this data, though, would ever tell me how that elderly woman without transportation got around in her hometown. 

Much like the scientists we often cover, we typically have a hypothesis in mind when we report on any topic. The data I examined told me where to look for the story. Phone interviews gave me background on the topic. But it took being in the field to fully understand the depth of the problems that come with a disappearing local health care system and to see some of the underreported barriers people face getting the resources they need, whether health-related, food, or employment. Someone who may have been able catch a ride with a neighbor or even walk to the hospital no longer has that option. A lack of a hospital combined with a lack of transportation can be deadly for residents. 

I went into that Dollar General not because I knew people were asking for rides there, but because someone at the hospital that shut down told me he had met a salesperson who was thinking about moving away from her hometown. She had a child with asthma and worried that, with the loss of the hospital, her child could be in grave danger. I never found that woman but instead witnessed the scene that changed the trajectory of some of my reporting. 

Because of the pandemic, and because of the constant stream of breaking news in my current job in CNN’s medical unit, nearly all of my reporting lately has been through short phone interviews or email. Like most reporters during the pandemic, I have had to write about entire worlds just by listening to a scientist describe what she sees under the microscope as I sit at my dining room table, my tuxedo cat, Ringo Starr, begging for treats in the chair next to me.

Sure, I can guess by the jargon the scientist uses or the occasional elongated vowels that punctuate her speech that she worked for a time at the CDC in Atlanta, and that can lead me to ask a different type of question, and a phone interview can tell me a lot. But nothing beats the depth of understanding that comes from being in the field, prepared with numbers. 

This lesson may be obvious, but the pandemic has painted many of us into a corner of our home and has kept us much more than 6 feet apart from our subject matter. We lose much when we don’t get to work in the field. The intimacy and understanding that come from being in an environment help us fill the gaps and lead us to new questions. Those questions can transform the story we’ve pre-written in our heads as we start each assignment.

 I wonder what else we missed in this pandemic because of this distance, and what else we can do to fill in that detail. 

Zoom has helped and I’m thrilled that the pandemic has encouraged even people who are not technologically savvy to embrace additional methods of communication that can at least give a glimpse into someone’s environment. With rural America’s broadband problem that has not always been an option.

We are often instructed not to parachute into a place we do not know well. We are urged to spend solid time with our subjects and watch how they live or work or interact with others. While my time in the field has been limited, I am grateful for every weekend I have spent in this part of the world that is so different from mine. Every time I come back from this isolated part of Georgia, some 161 miles from Atlanta, I have a better grasp of the obstacles people in rural parts of the country face in order to remain healthy, and how they try to work around the challenges.

I was able to witness how residents who trained in political canvassing techniques took it upon themselves to go door-to-door to sign up their fellow residents to get the COVID-19 vaccine. Many of those they spoke with did not have access to the internet and could not sign up for appointments, which were available exclusively online. Seeing this community spirit, I could understand why people would want to live in an area, even with all the obstacles.  

I was also able to get beyond the message that public relations people wanted me to hear.  For instance, had I not been in Randolph County, I may never have discovered that the county has only one ambulance, while surrounding counties with smaller populations have more. In Randolph, Grady Hospital in Atlanta runs the ambulance service but refused to grant me an interview no matter how many times I asked. 

At the hospital closing, I bumped into someone who could not speak to me on record but who could tell me about the nightmares they had about the lack of ambulance service. I learned that if the ambulance is on a run, even with a less serious patient who has a broken foot, for example, that ambulance cannot stop to help someone experiencing a heart attack or stroke. Armed with that information, I was able to ask different questions of those who can change this dire circumstance.

Data pointed me in the direction of southern Georgia, because I noticed the South has had a disproportionate number of hospital closures. The many barriers that people face in getting care, and the clever ways I watched dedicated residents try to work around them in Cuthbert, are not an isolated circumstance. These are symptoms of a broader problem that doesn’t get nearly enough attention.

I became a reporter with the hope that my writing could help right wrongs or at least amplify the message of people who seek social justice. My best work changes laws, sure, but at the very least, I hope my stories can take people into a world they may not otherwise witness, or introduce the reader or viewer to people they may not otherwise meet. Rather than dismiss a problem as inconsequential or not their own, I hope readers will find empathy and maybe even admiration for those who try, as one minister at the closing of the hospital said, “to make a way out of no way.”

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