Healthy Journalism

Saturday, May 18, 2013

Flooding the zone

It was mid-March when the first of the UGA health and medical journalism graduate student flew from Atlanta to Reno on a reporting trip. Students in this course do community journalism every year, but that usually means driving 24 miles for an interview, not flying 2,450.
Eight more HMJ students followed, traveling alone or in teams, loaded with computers and video equipment, clutching interview schedules and lists of questions begging to be asked.  
Each was responsible for one aspect of a larger story: can health professionals, businesses and consumers band together to make health care affordable for uninsured people? And can they do this by creating a nonprofit alternative to Medicaid and costly commercial insurance? The students were headed to Reno because this is where a novel program called the Access to Healthcare Network has been successful for more than seven years.
All semester the reporters analyzed the unmet needs of low-wage workers, small businesses, women, people with mental health problems, and those blindsided by emergencies. They learned how hospitals, federally subsidized clinics, nurses and community physicians could partake of a solution.  The final step was planning and executing a reporting trip to Reno.
The photo above shows mental health reporter Alicia Smith, hospital reporter Julianne Wyrick and Jodi Murphy – responsible for the small business beat – leaving UGA for their trip to Nevada.
Field reporting brought all the usual challenges: people who back out of interviews at the last minute, misunderstandings about where video can and cannot be shot, microphones that don’t work, batteries that poop out and motel rooms that are less than swanky.
When they returned to Athens, the nine members of the “Betting on Reno” team scrambled to fill gaps in reporting, struggled with balky editing software, and hectored sources for last-minute clarifications.
When the semester ended and the dust settled, they had produced about 6,000 words of edited, fact-checked copy and nine short videos. This is the kind of ambitious multimedia series that few news organizations are investing in right now
We flooded the zone because the story is important. The Access to Healthcare model works, and it fills a gap that is not going to disappear with the Affordable Care Act. Within the coming year, 5,000 people in the Athens area will be deciding whether joining a local version of the Reno plan makes sense for them.
The student reporters set out unearth everything they could to help Athenians make wise decisions.
Georgia Health News began running the “Betting on Reno” series on May 13 and will publish new stories every Monday and Thursday through June 10. This is serious journalism: no fluff, no handwringing or partisan ranting, real stories about real people who are sharing responsibility for the good of their community.
Dip into the series and you’ll discover that the Access to Healthcare Network is less like standard health insurance and more like a warehouse buyers’ club: a modest membership fee gives people access to participating doctors and hospitals at deeply discounted rates.
You won’t have to read far to learn that in early 2014, uninsured Athens-area residents who fit a certain description will become the first people outside Nevada who can purchase health and medical services this way.
And you’ll realize that the “individual mandate” provision of the Affordable Care Act doesn’t apply to people who can’t afford the cheapest plan on the state health exchange. For these people, a medical discount plan might be their best shot at care they can afford.

Is this the “teaching hospital” model for journalism education?

Eric Newton of the Knight Foundation, along with other foundation executives engaged with journalism schools, stirred the pot last August by calling on schools to adopt a "teaching hospital" model for training tomorrow’s journalists. He advocated embedding big name national news people in J-schools where they would lead student investigations of major topics, generating stories suitable for national distribution.  The News21 projects are good examples of this.
“Betting on Reno” is different. It is more like a neighborhood satellite clinic associated with a teaching hospital. As a Knight Chair, my purpose is to be a practitioner in a sea of scholars. But I’ve been swimming here for seven years now. Andy Miller, CEO and founder of Georgia Health News and our prime media partner for health journalism, more closely resembles the working journalists Eric Newton had in mind. The teaching hospital approach wasn’t practical for “Betting on Reno,” however, because Miller could not step away from his daily news operation to spend a semester in residence at UGA.
So I ran the course and Andy joined in at crucial points: helping the students determine whether they had marshaled the right datasets for their beats, providing political and historical context, and ultimately making thumbs up or thumbs down decisions about publishing their stories.
The third key member of the editorial brain trust is independent writer and editor Sonya Collins, an HMJ graduate who runs her own Atlanta-based business. She worked closely with every writer, asking hard questions and helping make the prose a pleasure to read. Together the three of us shaped the finished series.    
So whether you think this qualifies as a teaching hospital story or not, the “Betting on Reno” series clearly demonstrates that collaborations between academic institutions and professional news organizations can deliver genuine public service journalism – empowering users and delving deeply into stories that otherwise would be told superficially, if at all.