Reporters use county rankings for analysis

Andrew Van Dam

About Andrew Van Dam

Andrew Van Dam of The Wall Street Journal previously worked at the AHCJ offices while earning his master’s degree at the Missouri School of Journalism.

On Feb. 17, rankings of the relative health of counties in each American state were released by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation and the University of Wisconsin. The rankings used data from 13 distinct (mostly federal) sources, including the National Center for Health Statistics, the Census Bureau and the Dartmouth Atlas. With that data, researchers computed eight separate composite scores, which were then weighted to produce one overall score. The ratings are navigated by clicking through a national map to the state and county level. Enough clicks will even bring you to the raw data itself. The state only compares counties, not states, because data collection varies from state to state and isn’t always standardized.

logo1It’s a combination of data, analysis and an intuitive interface, and journalists have been quick to localize the story. Many reporters reached beyond the easy numbers (“our county is 67th!”) to use the system for deeper stories.

For example, Robin Erb of the Detroit Free Press dissected the ratings process and how individual factors and disparities played into them before launching into the standard state breakdown.

Writing for Health News Florida, David Gulliver took a broader state view and considered how various socioeconomic factors played into the rankings of Florida counties. Gulliver’s analysis:

The strong-performing coastal counties, like Collier, St. John’s Sarasota, Charlotte, Palm Beach and Broward, all benefit from having heavy concentrations of retirees who have guaranteed health care access via Medicare. …

[Dr. Kevin Sherin, director of public health for Orange County] said that in Florida’s tourism and service industries, workers tend to be transient and less likely to have insurance or consistent primary care.

He noted the low-ranked counties were some of the poorest in Florida, like Union and Bradford in the rural north, and Glades and Okeechobee, with heavy populations of migrant workers. Those counties also tend to have more people who speak only Spanish, Creole or other languages.

Gulliver localized the story on a county level for his Sarasota Health News site.

In USA Today, Mary Brophy Marcus took the national view and looked for broad trends and generalizations. Marcus’ story was accompanied by a map by Frank Pompa highlighting each state’s healthiest and least healthy counties.

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