Use national statistics to localize findings, dig for enterprise stories

Tara Haelle

About Tara Haelle

Tara Haelle (@TaraHaelle) is AHCJ's medical studies core topic leader, guiding journalists through the jargon-filled shorthand of science and research and enabling them to translate the evidence into accurate information.

FreeImages.com/Shannon Pifko

FreeImages.com/Shannon Pifko

The National Center for Health Statistics published the latest data on 2014 births last month, and these reports can be unexpected gold mines for enterprise reporting.

The reports themselves are very dry – literally just the most recent statistics available on a particular data set with little to no analysis. However, that means most journalists will be reporting just that – the data without much analysis – while others can take some time to compare the numbers to past reports and look for trends.

The news that most outlets reported with the report’s release was the increase in U.S. births after seven years of falling rates. The “baby recession,” as some stories referred to it, has largely been attributed to the country’s economic recession, especially since the birth decline began in 2007 just before the Lehman Brothers collapse, one of the key moments that kicked off the Great Recession.

That link implies that the increase now might be due to economic growth, though that’s only a hypothesis until someone can show the link. Others attributed the increase to the Affordable Care Act since it should have expanded access to family planning and OB/GYN services. Or, the increase could be related primarily to the increase of birth rates among women in their 30s and 40s, who appear to be taking greater advantage of fertility options.

While each of these possibilities was mentioned in some of the stories, each one also could become a more in-depth exploration for an enterprise piece, particularly the increase in births among older moms. Likewise, consider the other findings below that could each lead to their own stories, easily localized to smaller regional areas.

  • What factors could account for the continuing increase in births among moms in their 30s and 40s? Is it increased fertility options or access? Is it changes in the workforce or cultural family planning decisions? Is it linked to any other increases or decreases, such as any outcomes associated with older childbearing?
  • The teen birth rate dropped 9 percent. Why are fewer teens having babies? Were there any patterns that contributed to the drop, such as a greater drop in some geographical areas but not others? If so, why? Are there programs aimed at reducing teen pregnancy that are playing a role? Are there any changes in teen abortion rates?
  • While births rose for white, black, Asian and Hispanic moms, it fell for Native American moms. Why? Is there anything going on in the Native American communities that might explain this? Have these families been unable to gain from more recent economic growth?
  • Cesarean section rates fell from 32.7 percent to 32.2 percent, the lowest rate since 2007. What’s causing this drop? Are more hospitals instituting policies that reduce unnecessary C-sections? Are fewer elective C-sections occurring? Is this drop linked to any other outcomes?
  • The preemie birth rate (before 37 weeks) continued to decline and sits just under 10 percent. Why has it been declining? Has prenatal care access expanded and/or influenced this? Is this drop related to the drop in C-sections? Are fewer women being induced early? Is this linked to the drop in the teen birth rate since teens have a higher risk of having preterm births?
  • The fertility rate increased by a percentage point. This could be an opportunity to explain what the fertility rate is and what it means. What are the implications of a rising or falling fertility rate?
  • The birth rate for unmarried women dropped by a percentage point. Again, why? Was this true across all demographics? Is it due to the drop in teen pregnancy rates?

Each time a new National Vital Statistics Report comes out from the CDC, there will be the straight-forward summary news stories pointing out some of the key findings. But for those in local markets or those looking to dig deeper, these reports offer a wealth of story ideas to chase down.

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