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About AHCJ: General News

President's Corner: How Health Journalism 2015 made me smarter Date: 07/27/15

Karl Stark

This column first appeared in the Summer 2015 issue of HealthBeat.

By Karl Stark

Health Journalism 2015 made me smarter.

I’ll give two examples. First, there was the pleasure of listening to Abraham Verghese, physician and master storyteller, who works in the heart of Silicon Valley, the foundry of disruption, and is quite up to date. But he also believes in the touch and the rituals of the physical exam. He insisted that we not discard the old values when we take up new gadgets. And he talked about how compassionate listening is a sublime thing and part of the ritual of being a doctor.

Listening is part of the ritual of being a journalist too, which probably explains why his talk was so inspiring.

Another highlight was listening to independent journalist Heather Boerner talk about how she crowd-sourced funding for her book “Positively Negative: Love, Pregnancy, and Science’s Surprising Victory Over HIV.” Boerner wrote 9,000 words for a $100 assignment. (There is a diagnosis for this: It’s called “journalism.”)

When her editors wanted to lop off 2,000 words, she balked and explored conventional publishing to no avail. She ended up raising $4,200 on Indiegogo and got her book published in July 2014.

Fundraising became part of Boerner’s day job. The crowd support also enabled her to tell a story she probably wouldn’t have been able to relay otherwise. “This book is fascinating,” a reader wrote on Goodreads.com. “I wish it was longer.”

The AHCJ conference was notable for many other things. Nearly 700 people attended. There was an intriguing visit with a medical mannequin that breathes and sweats. The board also gave a special award to Penny Duckham of the Kaiser Health Foundation for years of service to health journalism. Duckham was a virtual doula of our organization, helping us launch, and she has arguably done more than anyone to educate health reporters and raise the standards of our profession. And she does it with the bearing of Helen Mirren and the wit of Maggie Smith

Since the conference, there has been a ton of good work and other AHCJ developments. We’ve had two new journalists join our formidable, six-member core topics team of web editors.

Tara Haelle, an independent journalist who contributes to Forbes and HealthDay, leads the medical studies core topic, helping guide journalists through the jargon-filled underbelly of research.

Susan Heavey, a Washington-based journalist for Reuters, is now leading AHCJ’s core topic on social determinants and disparities in health. Both have already proven their value.

One of my favorite parts of our core topics effort is the “How I Did It” section. The medical studies core topic recently featured an inside account by Beth Daley, an investigative reporter at the New England Center for Investigative Reporting, who described how screening tests’ accuracy were being overstated by companies and doctors. For some conditions, a positive test result could be wrong 50 percent or more of the time.

Heavey asked Doug Pardue and Lauren Sausser of The Post and Courier in South Carolina to write about how their story – about the state’s perpetually high infant deaths – nearly slipped away when officials released updated statistics that appeared to show the problem ebbing.

A closer look showed there were still pockets of extreme problems, and Pardue and Sausser were able to take a deeper look at where the state was getting it right, and where it wasn’t.

Finally Joseph Burns, a Massachusetts-based independent journalist who leads our health insurance core topic, highlighted an excellent series that dug into Idaho’s high suicide rate. Idaho Statesman business reporter Audrey Dutton and then-Boise State Public Radio’s digital content coordinator Emilie Ritter Saunders focused on how Idahoans who lack insurance or can’t find adequate services, are ending up getting care only in crisis. “Their work could serve as a blueprint for journalists covering this challenging story in any state,” Burns wrote.

Karl Stark, the assistant managing editor for business, health and science at The Philadel­phia Inquirer, serves as president of the AHCJ board of directors.