Two Online Efforts Expand Reporters' Resources for Covering Public Health Issues
In 2004–05, Christopher Conte, a writer for Governing magazine, wrote five magazine-length articles about key challenges facing state and local public health departments in diverse areas. In March 2006, the Trust for America's Health launched an online media center designed to educate reporters about public health issues.
- Conte wrote a series of five articles profiling five different public health programs run by health departments from diverse geographic areas and levels of government and facing different issues. The series, entitled Profiles in Public Health, is posted on the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Web site.
- The Trust for America's Health established an online media resource center on public health issues.
RWJF supported the creation of the articles and the Web site through two solicited grants: a $33,564 grant to Conte (September 1, 2004–February 28, 2005), and a $100,000 grant to the Trust for America's Health (December 1, 2004–February 28, 2006).
RWJF originally expected Conte's articles to appear on the Web site Trust for America's Health was creating, but a change in the focus of that site precluded that, and RWJF posted the articles on its own site instead.
Public health agencies in the United States must meet increasing demands with limited resources, while facing limited public understanding both of their responsibilities and the value of their services.
A 2003 report by the Trust for America's Health (Ready Or Not) found that, despite a $3 billion infusion of federal funds following the September 11, 2001, attacks, most states were only modestly better prepared to address health emergencies four years later than they had been before the attacks.
There were concerns that funding would not be sustained, and that the emphasis on bioterrorism preparedness might distract agencies from other critical public health needs.
Communicating the essential value of their services has frequently been a challenge for public health agencies. National polls indicate that the general public does not understand the role these agencies play, according to the trust. When agencies fail to communicate the value of the services they provide, they miss opportunities to shore up support for pubic health, the trust says.
In order to raise awareness of the challenges facing state and local public health agencies during a time of uncertain funding, RWJF asked Governing magazine writer Christopher Conte to write a series of articles profiling five different public health programs.
Selecting health departments from diverse geographic areas and levels of government, each of which faced different issues, Conte would analyze how reductions in funding had affected the core responsibilities and functions of public health.
Trust for America's Health
RWJF also funded the Trust for America's Health—a health advocacy organization focused on disease prevention through strengthening public health programs—to create an online resource center for local public health agencies. Objectives of the center would be to:
- Enhance media relations and advocacy skills.
- Improve public health communications techniques.
- Promote media coverage of public health issues.
The Conte stories were originally envisioned as part of an online Story Bank featured as part of the trust's resource center.
A Change in Direction
During the project, Conte and staff at the trust learned that the National Association of County and City Health Officials (NACCHO) had already undertaken a Web site similar to the one proposed by the trust.
Rather than duplicate this effort, trust staff reconceived its project as a Web-based resource center on public health issues for the media. They envisioned the new Web site as a source of story ideas, background information and education on public health for members of the press.
RWJF, the trust and Conte agreed that Conte's stories did not fit the focus of the new Web site. Instead, RWJF posted them on its own Web site, in a Newsroom feature called Profiles in Public Health.
Staff at the trust worked with a consultant—a former health reporter from Vanguard Communications—to identify the public health topics of greatest interest to the media.
The two projects produced the following results:
- Conte wrote five magazine-length articles profiling state and local public health agencies and the issues they face:
- "Politics and Public Health in North Carolina" examined efforts by North Carolina's Division of Public Health to use accreditation and new accountability measures to strengthen local agencies.
- "Healthy Communities in California" depicted grassroots community organizing campaigns in Alameda County aimed at improving public health in two disadvantaged neighborhoods.
- "Partnerships for Health in Michigan" described a Genesee County health official's use of partnerships with community organizations to promote public health.
- "Filling a Health Void in Texas" described how budget cuts have weakened the local public health infrastructure, and examines efforts by a university to create a rudimentary public health infrastructure in two diverse communities, including a border area with a large and destitute immigrant population.
- "Teaching Public Health in Nebraska" explored how a newly created master's in public health program at the University of Nebraska is enhancing the state's public health system.
- The Trust for America's Health launched an online media resource center on public health issues. The Web site provides a comprehensive overview of the key components of public health, with content designed to inform novices and provide more complex information to seasoned members of the media who have extensively covered public health. Among its features:
- FAQs provide a snapshot overview of public health in America and current serious public health challenges.
- An Emergency Preparedness page offers resources and story ideas on major health emergencies, including biological and chemical attacks.
- A Health in Your State page contains state-level information and story ideas.
- Hot Topics in Public Health offers suggestions for in-depth reporting on issues the Trust has identified as particularly critical to public health.
- When building a media resource, think of the media as an audience. By working with a former health reporter and receiving feedback from other reporters as part of the design process, the trust staff was able to provide substance and simple navigation that met their target audience's needs. (Project Director/Segal)
- Strike a balance between substantive, in-depth content and simple, navigable organization. The difficulty of communicating complex subject matter in a readable, organized format often lends itself to excessive material that can be confusing to navigate. Cross-links and top-level categories, along with a consistent feel within the Web site, made navigation of the trust's Web site more intuitive. (Project Director/Segal)
- Public health communications efforts would be enhanced if foundations funding in the public health area offered training and workshops for journalists who cover public health—and used these to bring reporters and public health officials together. (Project Director/Conte)
In addition, Conte offered a number of observations about the relationship between journalists and public health agencies. See the Appendix for more information.
One of Conte's five articles, "Filling a Health Void in Texas," focused in part on promotoras in a poor south Texas border community. These trained health advocates, funded by a grant from RWJF (ID# 053651), are liaisons between the community and the health system in an area where the public health infrastructure has been weakened by lack of funding RWJF created an interactive photo essay, "Health Angels," about the promotoras.
Conte has written additional feature stories on public health for Governing magazine:
- "Are We Ready Yet?" on bioterrorism preparedness, ran in the October 2005 edition of the magazine.
- "Fat City: Is There a Way for a Government to Fight Obesity? Chicago's new health commissioner is trying to figure that out," appeared in June 2006.
GRANT DETAILS & CONTACT INFORMATION
Communications and Advocacy Tool Kit and Story Bank for Public Health Issues
Christopher R. Conte (Silver Spring, MD)
- Studying the Impact of State Budget Cuts and Bioterrorism Preparedness Funds on Public Health Agencies
Amount: $ 33,564
Dates: September 2004 to June 2005
Christopher R. Conte
Trust for America's Health (Washington, DC)
- Communications and Advocacy Tool Kit and Story Bank for Public Health Issues
Amount: $ 100,000
Dates: December 2004 to February 2006
Observations on Journalism and Public Health
In a report to RWJF, Christopher Conte noted that the reporting process involved in creating the "Profiles in Public Health" articles also yielded some insights about the challenges and opportunities for public health journalism. Among his observations:
- Journalists find it easier to cover medical stories, such as the development of a new drug or device, than to cover public health stories, which are generally about trends that evolve over time. Cultural change is key to resolving many public health problems, such as obesity and infant mortality, but it is amorphous and difficult to write about.
- Journalists can improve their ability to cover public health issues by reviving "civic journalism," covering communities from the grassroots up.
- Public health agencies and officials can better communicate their message by finding ways to define their mission and discuss key issues more clearly and concretely in everyday language.
- Public health officials struggle with an ambivalence about media coverage: they want the public to understand what they do and why additional support for public health agencies is critical, but they are concerned that the press will hold them accountable for problems that are growing worse, not improving.
- As "evidence-based practice" has become essential in medicine and in business, public health needs to provide solid evidence of the effectiveness of their interventions in order to convince reporters, generate better stories and garner support.
(Current as of date of this report; as provided by grantee organization; not verified by RWJF; items not available from RWJF.)
Conte CR. "Filling a Health Void in Texas."
Conte CR. "Healthy Communities in California."
Conte CR. "Partnerships for Health in Michigan."
Conte CR. "Teaching Public Health in Nebraska."
Conte CR. "Politics and Public Health in North Carolina."
World Wide Web Sites
www.healthyamericans.org/reports. The Media Resource Center on the Trust for America's Health Web site provides story ideas, background information, resources and education on public health for members of the press. Washington: Trust for America's Health, March 2006.
Report prepared by: Gina Shaw
Reviewed by: Robert Narus
Reviewed by: Molly McKaughan
Program Officer: Joseph F. Marx