April 1, 2020

As statewide and local newsrooms have dealt with financial crunches over the past decade, layoffs have mounted an inadvertent attack on specialized beats. Health care reporting hasn’t been immune.

COVID-19 has shined a light on the kinds of background knowledge and source potential that dedicated health care reporters have in their arsenal that their colleagues don’t. Experience covering local health care systems and health policy allows reporters to give their readers more context while covering the pandemic and to hold leaders accountable as they respond to it.

Kim Walsh-Childers is a professor at the University of Florida’s College of Journalism and Communications. Her research focuses on the relationship between news media and their communication of health information — how reporting influences the public’s health decisions and its effect on public health policy. She said that on a national level, at publications such as ProPublica and Kaiser Health News, COVID-19 coverage has been excellent. But they haven’t had the kinds of losses of dedicated health reporters that local outlets have.

Those with dedicated reporters have the means to produce better coverage.

“The background knowledge is the foundation and the sources are what allow you to do the job,” Walsh-Childers said.

That background knowledge includes an understanding of the American health care system, the issues it has faced over recent years and even decades, and how that affects a community.

“If you don’t have a background in covering the health care system, you probably don’t realize from the get-go that our hospital capacity is basically just enough to deal with normal life, normal needs,” she said.

The system isn’t designed to deal with these massive influxes, especially ones that are so widespread. Usually, a surge in demand comes after a hurricane or a more localized epidemic.

“Then, we’d just ship them somewhere else,” she said. “But obviously that doesn’t work here.”

When hospitals talk about capacity, they’re not just talking about literal space and the number of beds. They’re talking about the number of people they have the resources to care for. That includes supplies and, most importantly, personnel.

“If you don’t have a background in covering health care, you probably aren’t conscious of the fact we’ve had a doctor shortage for a long time,” Walsh-Childers said. “We’ve had a nursing shortage for at least 10 years — probably 15. We’re woefully far behind. That’s not even talking about the rural areas and the inner cities that are even more underserved.”

That context is pivotal in helping readers, listeners and viewers understand the strain the COVID-19 pandemic will cause to their communities.

Reporters who are covering only or predominantly health care are more likely to have a network of other health reporters they can contract for advice. They’re more likely to be members of organizations like the Association of Health Care Journalists, which has been sharing members’ stories and tip sheets.

In addition to understanding the hospitals’ strain, experience in covering health care would mean you have sources in the medical community and with providers, Walsh-Childers said. That would be especially helpful in situations where local officials might be underselling the severity of the pandemic or offering misleading information.

“The other thing you would have developed … is people who trust you, who are comfortable enough with your coverage, who would be willing to call and say, ‘That thing the governor said or the county commissioner said is wrong; let me make it clear what we’re actually dealing with,’” she said.

Jessica Seaman has been covering health for The Denver Post since 2018. She said having source knowledge on hand was one of the many things that have helped in the Posts’ response to COVID-19, which has included critical stories like the financial strain on rural hospitals, nascent COVID-19 blood tests and the use of telemedicine.

“Having worked with the health department before and the hospitals before, I knew how everyone worked,” she said. “I had everyone’s cell phone (number).”

She and another reporter, Meg Wingerter, who had also been covering health, were able to team up with a handful of other reporters to coordinate a response. It made divvying up the work and assigning it to people with more relevant backgrounds easier. The Post already had a bi-monthly health newsletter, Checkup Denver. Seaman and Tynin Fries, a member of the digital strategy team, adjusted it in light of COVID-19 coverage. It’s now daily.

There are a few ways newsrooms can reap the benefits of health care reporters without having dedicated ones on staff. Many of them freelance. But Walsh-Childers points out that might be difficult now. COVID-19 has affected news outlets’ finances negatively, and freelance budgets are taking a hit.

AHCJ executive director Leonard Bruzzese noted that newsrooms can create beats wherein reporters cover health care as well as other topic areas, but there are drawbacks.

“Of course, if you force each reporter to cover multiple beats — as sort of super general assignment reporters — you lessen their ability to develop expertise in one area. Expertise that offers reassurance to audiences,” Bruzzese said in an email. “I’m not sure that’s going to change with the economic model forced on news outlets now, but if that’s the case, news leaders need to recognize their responsibility to constantly offer topic-oriented training opportunities to their staffers.”

Catherine Sweeney is a freelance reporter covering newsrooms’ response to COVID-19. You can reach her at catherinejsweeney@gmail.com or @cathjsweeney on Twitter.

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