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About AHCJ: General News

Reform's next challenge: Telling the health stories of real community residents Date: 07/15/10

Charles OrnsteinCharles Ornstein

by Charles Ornstein, AHCJ President

The run-up to this spring's historic votes on health reform followed a familiar script, both in the halls of gov­ernment and in newsrooms around the country. Proponents and critics ripped into each other's positions, trying to capi­talize on daily missteps and shape public opinion. Meanwhile, editors and report­ers faced complex decisions about how to balance coverage of the political aspects of the story with the practical and policy implications.

It was a true tug-of-war.

On a day-to-day basis, it seemed that political stories got better billing - at least from my vantage point. With the election of Scott Brown and the looming 2010 primaries, part of that is understandable. But I am really proud of the job health journalists did breaking through the noise and putting the political developments in the appropriate policy context. Time and again, reporters from outlets big and small profiled folks struggling with and without insurance in their communities, looked at the budget realities in their states and went beyond the catch phrases used by both sides. Journalists repeatedly took the vari­ous bills moving through the process and explained how they would affect readers, listeners and viewers. And they especially did this after the bill became law.

But for us, as health reporters, the hardest task comes next. As health reform is implemented, we move from the theo­retical to the actual.

The politics will continue to play out. Look no further than the candidate ads promising to repeal ObamaCare. But in the next year or two, very important policy decisions will be made - and those deci­sions will have far-reaching consequences. High-risk insurance pools. An end to in­surance rescissions. Subsidies for seniors. Expansion of public programs. Tax credits for small businesses. An individual insur­ance mandate. Public reporting of phar­maceutical company payments to doctors. The list goes on. Each of these could fun­damentally change the way health care is delivered in our communities.

Political sources come to you - they is­sue press releases, call press conferences and make spokespeople available at a moment's notice. The same goes for lawyers on both sides of the issue. They want to win the battle of each news cycle. But finding members of your community with no ax to grind should be your primary mission. Telling their stories is your challenge. Does health reform make their lives better or does it set them further back? Does health reform make it tougher to see a doctor? Are drug firms and hospitals seeing higher profits or are they taking a hit? Are states meeting their obligations under the law?

Nonprofit foundations and government agencies are making a plethora of information available to help journalists and the public understand the law's milestones. At AHCJ, we're doing our part - with an emphasis on journalists. As part of an ongoing project, we're soliciting pointers and advice from reporters covering these stories. On our website, healthjournalism.org, you can find tips on covering the law's implementation from a growing number of reporters around the country - our past president, Trudy Lieberman; Noam Levey of the Los Angeles Times-Tribune Washington bureau; Jim Landers of The Dallas Morning News; Laura Meckler of The Wall Street Journal; Victoria Colliver of the San Francisco Chronicle; and Sarah Varney of KQED and the California Report. There's also a recent podcast from a Washington health reform briefing for journalists covering health reform co-sponsored by AHCJ, the Alliance for Health Reform and the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. I'd love to hear from you if you have advice you are willing to share. E-mail me at charles.ornstein@propublica.org.

In addition, if you were among the 500 attendees at Health Journalism 2010 in Chicago, you were able to attend a number of sessions addressing various as­pects of the law. Presentations and hand­outs from those sessions are available on our website as well.

I want to close this column by thank­ing all of you who attended our conference in Chicago and made it such a success. De­spite the well-known problems in our in­dustry, we managed to pull off our second-largest conference to date. Many reporters filed stories from the conference and others have since written front-page articles based on our panels and keynote speakers. We're proud of those able to convince managers of the tremendous value of sending you to the conference and those of you investing in your career development by paying your own way. We will continue in our own ef­forts to keep conference registration among the cheapest in the industry through spon­sorships and grants, and to assist as many of you as possible through fellowships and stipend support.

Another special thanks to AHCJ's staff and to our growing roster of volunteers. Right now, we have active committees dealing with membership, development, freelancer needs, our annual contest, the conference, and right to know issues. We also have a number of chapters around the country led by volunteer chairs. Vol­unteering is a great way to get a feel for AHCJ and determine if you would like to take a leadership role in the future. If you are interested in volunteering, please let me know.

Thanks for all you do to support AHCJ and keep your communities informed about health and health care today.