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About AHCJ: General News

President's corner: AHCJ membership hits new high Date: 07/17/08

Trudy Lieberman, President
From the Spring 2008 issue of HealthBeat

Trudy LiebermanEach spring it's time to take stock of where we are as an association - what we have done in the past year and where we are headed for the next one. As I noted in March at our annual meeting in Washington, D.C., AHCJ is in the best position ever - financially and otherwise.

Let's start with finances. As of March, our Center for Excellence had increased its unrestricted net assets from a negative $1,000 in mid-2005 to about $193,000, and the Association's total equity had risen from $23,000 in mid-2005 to about $317,000. Unrestricted assets give us the flexibility we need to start programs that will benefit members in their work. As you know, we are primarily funded by grants that specify what the money must be used for, so unrestricted money gives us wiggle room to grow outside the parameters of those grants.

We have been fortunate this year to have core program support from the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation to help put us on a more secure financial footing and a grant from a consortium of foundations in Kansas and Missouri to sponsor 10 Midwest Health Journalism Program fellowships. The first crop of fellows just "graduated" from our 10-month training program, and everyone thought the experience was very valuable. Some have done wonderful stories and have gotten new perspectives on the beat - exactly what a fellowship program should deliver. We will be training another group beginning in July, and these fellowships position us to be the premier training organization for health care journalists.

Conferences continue to be the hallmark of our organization. Health Journalism 2008, our 10th anniversary conference attracted our biggest crowd yet to Washington, D.C. - 583 attendees, more than 100 above last year's successful conference in Los Angeles. We are already interested in your thoughts about panels and speakers for next spring. This fiscal year inaugurated new workshops - an urban health workshop in New York City and a rural health workshop in Columbia, Mo., where AHCJ is based. In some ways, journalists covering urban and rural health issues deal with the same topics; for example, diabetes and access to care, but in other ways, they face different challenges. In mid-October, we will have our second urban workshop at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism. Again the focus will be covering health in city settings.

Membership is at an all-time high with 1,096 health care journalists. We have achieved this record membership at a time when news outlets are cutting back on health reporting, making the increase all the more remarkable. We have members in all 50 states, Washington, D.C., Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, as well as in 20 other countries. In January, we hosted a program at Bloomberg's London offices that featured the head of Britain's National Institute for Clinical Excellence (NICE), a body that recommends the use of pharmaceuticals based on evidence of their effectiveness and their cost. The event resulted in local attendees interested in setting up a London chapter. In the meantime, new chapters have sprung up in Florida and in Philadelphia.

We continue to offer new products to help journalists cover all aspects of a very complicated beat. The electronic discussion group, moderated by Ivan Oransky, is robust and our Web site offers more content thanks to staff member Pia Christensen. We published a slim guide on how to cover obesity and soon we will offer guides to help you cover your local nursing home and find your way around the CDC. In July, with the help of The Commonwealth Fund and CUNY, we will launch a series of live webcasts called "Talking Health." The series will feature experts on a specific health topic and journalists who cover it. You will be able to ask questions or just tune in for story ideas.

I am proud of our Right to Know Committee's advocacy work under the leadership of board member Mary Chris Jaklevic. I like to think of AHCJ as a professional home for members who sometimes struggle to get information. We sent a letter of protest to the Illinois Department of Healthcare and Family Services on behalf of Dean Olsen, a reporter at the Springfield State Journal-Register who was having trouble shaking loose Medicaid and SCHIP data. And if you are a close reader of the Web site, you'll see that we have taken a strong stand against hospital confidentiality statements that reporters are being asked to sign. Such agreements can restrict coverage and erode the trust between journalists and the public. We also have drafted a letter condemning sponsorship arrangements between television stations and now newspapers and local hospitals. At the very least, these alliances are unethical and can deprive the public of full and factual information about medical treatments and other health care matters. We also are working with journalism students at various universities to conduct FOIA audits of government agencies serving health journalists.

To help us serve you better, I offer a modest "to do" list:

  • Let us know if you have topic, panel or speaker ideas for our conferences. Send ideas to conferences@healthjournalism.org.
  • Send suggestions for "Talking Health" programs to topics@healthjournalism.org.
  • Send ideas for new Web content and features to web@healthjournalism.org.
  • Tell us when a hospital or other health care provider asks you to sign a confidentiality requirement by sending a note to web@healthjournalism.org.
  • And if you hear that a news outlet in your community is partnering with a local hospital, check it out and let us know that too.

Trudy Lieberman is director of the health and medicine reporting program at City University of New York's Graduate School of Journalism and is president of the AHCJ board of directors.