Bringing a community focus to health journalism

By Mary Lou Fulton

The most eye-opening thing I have learned since going to work for a health foundation is this:  where you live has a more profound effect on your health than whether you can see a doctor when you’re sick.  In short, place matters when it comes to your health and life expectancy, ideas that are at the heart of The California Endowment’s community health strategy.

The media and communications grants I make are aimed at advancing this more expansive view of health, which is not the conventional way that health journalism beats are defined.   A 2009 study by the Kaiser Family Foundation found that health care reform drove 40% of all coverage, followed by public health/swine flu at 36% percent and reporting on specific diseases at 24%.    These are event-driven topics that focus primarily on things that happen today (i.e. political developments in health reform, the latest flu outbreak data, the newest scientific study on obesity, and the like) versus focusing on life at the neighborhood level.

Covering health from a community perspective requires a different approach that combines elements from a number of beats, and it’s great to see a growing body of journalism that tells these stories in areas such as:

  • Land use: City Council decisions on land use and zoning are usually covered by city hall reporters, but land use has a huge impact on health because it defined where parks and walking paths are located (offering more convenient places to exercise), where or whether shopping centers will be built, and proximity of homes to freeways. The California Bay Area city of Richmond is expected to become the first in the nation to incorporate health into the general plan that governs land use, as described in this video.
  • Violence: Crime is a health issue, not only when it results in physical and psychological harm but when it keeps fearful people inside their homes where they are less likely to exercise. Neighborhood violence also discourages economic development, such as the addition of new grocery stores, that offer convenient healthier food choices.  And violence has a disproportionate impact on young people, with the U.S. Centers for Disease Control reporting that homicide and suicide are the second and third leading causes of death among Americans aged 15-34.  A creative approach to reporting on this topic won Joe Carlson of an award from the National Association of Health Care Journalists for “The Cost of Murder,” examining the toll that violence takes on communities and on the profits of hospitals in those neighborhoods.
  • Housing: If your home or apartment is toxic or infested with vermin, you will get sick.  Janet Wilson, with support from the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism, wrote about how residents of Maywood, California, are fighting to improve their contaminated tap water.  And The Los Angeles Times reported on an innovative program at the St. John’s Well Child and Family Center  where doctors cure illness by referring tenants to lawyers down the hall to pursue action against slumlords whose apartments are making people sick. As the article’s headline said, “Sometimes good legal help is the best medicine.”
  • Childhood obesity. Weight loss is often portayed as a matter of individual will, and personal decisions certainly are important.  But so are other factors, such as the food kids eat in school, the daily time devoted to P.E. and access to fresh fruits and vegetables.  The childhood obesity cause has found a powerful ally in chef Jamie Oliver, whose new Food Revolution television show focuses on this issue, for which he won a TED prize earlier this year.  Oliver’s TED Talk accepting the prize really makes the case for why this issue matters.
  • Life expectancy. Reporters Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman won a White House Correspondents Association award for their Shortened Lives series which included reporting on the differences in life expectancy among people who live in three Bay Area ZIP codes — including a striking 16-year difference in neighborhoods just 12 miles apart.

While all of this work is impressive, it is largely “special project style” reporting, which involves temporarily focusing on a topic and then moving on to something else.  For this reason, I’m working toward grants that create full-time positions focused on community health so that this important topic is not addressed only in projects, but becomes an ongoing and essential part of local journalism.

The Endowment’s recent support of investigative reporting startup California Watch is an example of this approach, with two new positions specifically focused on community-level concerns.   Another example is our grant to to train East Oakland residents interested in writing about the food environment in their neighborhood. More grants are in the works, and I look forward to sharing all the great stories I’m confident will emerge when a community lens is used to report on health.



  1. August 22, 2010 at 6:13 pm

    […] largest health foundation, and my job is make grants that increase the quantity and quality of journalism about community health.  Working with our NPR grants made me wonder:  Could this approach also be used to support health […]

  2. September 13, 2010 at 4:35 pm

    […] grant is part of The Endowment’s Building Healthy Communities strategy focused on community health – the idea that our neighborhoods play a profound role in determining our chances to live a […]

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