September 21, 2005

Race and Reporting

I'm still at Harvard working the Institute for Justice and Journalism conference on race and reporting. I'm posting on a Poynter blog about the issue.

Here's my post from today:

First some data:

 About 17.5 percent of American adults don’t have health insurance. If you’re Hispanic, though, the number is 35 percent; African American, 22.8 percent; white, only 12.7 percent.
 The life expectancy of an American male is 73.4 years. But if you are a black man in Washington, D.C., it’s only 57.9 years – less time alive than in Ghana, Bangladesh or Bolivia.
 American minorities less likely than whites to be treated well for heart disease, receive kidney dialysis or transplants or get sophisticated HIV treatment. They are, however, more likely than whites to receive “certain less-desirable procedures,” such as having a leg amputated for diabetes.

Does this racial disparity in health care sound like news? Certainly it does – and the U.S. press has been writing about it. A search of Lexis-Nexis on “health care and racial disparity” produces hundreds of newspaper stories, including many referring to the report from which the above information came, of "Unequal Treatment," a 2002 study by the Institute of Medicine, part of the National Academy of Sciences.

Newspapers do some of their best work on health care issues (read this L.A. Times series on King/Drew Medical Center), but they also do some of their shallowest on the same subject, writing routine report stories or focusing on heart-tugging personal stories instead of larger, more difficult issues.

During a day of seminars devoted to race and health care, IJJ’s racial justice fellows heard Brian Smedley, an author of the Institute of Medicine study, describe how minority Americans, even those with private health insurance, consistently receive a lower standard of health care than their white counterparts. The culprits are a combination of culture, economics and various forms of bias – much of it unconscience and manifested in lower expectations by medical professionals for their minority patients.

As an issue, health care and its unequal access is complex, deep-rooted and, ultimately, very personal, especially to the poor. It can also be daunting to cover for news organizations that are feeling resource-squeezed or feel pressure to report on matters that are more demographically targeted to capture new readers, growing suburbs, for example. Poverty, let’s admit it, is a bit out fashion as a beat compared to a couple of decades ago.

What can journalists do, especially those working on mid-size or smaller newspapers, to tell this story better? Here are a few stories that can be reported in any community:

 Emergency room use. The poor, the uninsured, use hospital emergency rooms as their primary care center. Local residents of all economic brackets foot the bill. What’s the story in your community. Here’s an example from National Public Radio in Minneapolis.
 The private sector is collecting racial and ethnic data on medical treatment with more precision than the government, says Smedley. What do insurers like Aetna know about your community that you don’t?
 Morbidity rates. The Centers for Disease Control is a good place to start.
 Translation services. Medical facilities that receive federal money – and that’s nearly every one – must provide translation services for their patients. Do they? What is their quality? Who are the contractors? Are hospitals, for example, using the bilingual children of immigrants to translate?

Later in the day, filmmaker Larry Adelman, producer of the PBS series “Race – The Power of an Illusion,” urged journalists to focus more on the larger, systemic issue of health-care disparity and less on the one-person story. You “spend too much time looking at what individuals can do to improve their health,” he said. You “need to break out of those individual stories.”

“The message” of the day from the health care scientists, said Steve Montiel, director of the Institute for Justice and Journalism, “is to deal with complexity, to not back away from it, to not simplify.”

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Posted by Tim Porter at September 21, 2005 05:51 AM