Category Archives: Health journalism

Award-winning journalist explains how to build meaningful connections with sources

Emily Woodruff

Emily Woodruff, a health care reporter for the New Orleans Times-Picayune/New Orleans Advocate, was recognized as one of the winners of AHCJ’s 2021 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the beat reporting and health policy (small) categories at Health Journalism 2022.

Her winning local COVID-19 coverage offered a vivid picture of how Louisiana’s hospitals, health care providers and residents were coping with the ongoing pandemic and other events impacting health in communities, such as hurricanes, the opioid epidemic and other diseases. In many of her articles, Woodruff provided readers with a sense of connection to people featured in her stories. 

In this “How I did It,” Woodruff shares her process for building trust with sources and enlivening her stories. 

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

How do you create captivating scenes in your articles? What are your top tips?

You can probably tell in the stories when I was there with someone as an interaction unfolded or when I got to meet someone in their environment. I think that helps a lot. During COVID, we weren’t able to do a lot of that, and it’s something I missed. I think health care reporters in general, have to spend more time interviewing someone for any given story. Often [health reporters] are interviewing people who aren’t used to talking to the media. For a lot of these stories, you have to spend some time [with them]. You have to indicate that you understand where they’re coming from. So, a lot of times that looks like just being informed about whatever issue it is that they’re facing.

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Think outside the box when looking for human sources

Photo by Alex Green via pexels.

It can seem hard for journalists to find people open to sharing personal stories about sensitive topics.

But they can be found just about anywhere that people gather, in person or virtually including on social media, Gofundme pages and grocery stores. But they need to be approached with sensitivity, especially those dealing with trauma who may be particularly uncomfortable talking to reporters.

“Most people have no idea what the news gathering process is like,” said Noah Levey of Kaiser Health News, so it’s important to explain the journalistic process and be patient. It pays off, he said. “With the right person you can convey the complexity of how people actually live.”

The panelists at the April 28 session at Health Journalism 2022 — Levey, Pam Belluck of The New York Times, Alexis Allison of the Fort Worth Report, and moderator Anna Medaris of Insider — offered tips for finding everyday people and treating them with sensitivity.

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Public records: Dig deep (but curb your expectations)

Lexi Churchill of ProPublica (at the podium) and Sandhya Kambhampati of the Los Angeles Times (to the right) talking to attendees during the FOIA panel at Health Journalism 2022. (Photo courtesy of Katherine Gilyard)

Rhode Island freelance writer Philip Eil, a veteran of an extended public records battle, has some stark advice for any journalist determined to wrestle important documents from the government: “Expect nothing, and expect it to take forever.”

That sounds discouraging. But, as Eil told colleagues on Thursday, April 29 at Health Journalism 2022 during the “Making FOIA work for you: How to get the public records you want” panel, low expectations serve two purposes. They help you avoid becoming emotionally involved. And they make your hard-won victories even sweeter.

Eil should know: His very first bid for public records turned into a fight that went all the way to a federal appeals court as he sought the documents he needed to report on the notorious “pill mill” physician whose opioid prescriptions ravaged an Ohio town. “I was unwilling,” he said, “to take no for an answer.”

Eil’s fellow panelists offered their own tips about mastering the art of public-record requests: Know the law (and cite it!), don’t always rely on email, look for alternative ways to get elusive information, and reach out for legal reinforcements when needed.

Adam Marshall, a senior staff attorney with the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press, advised journalists to not only understand public records law but to remind government agencies of it in your public record requests. “There’s actually empirical research that shows that if you state a statutory provision, you will actually get a better response from the government,” he said.

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AHCJ announces winners of 2021 health journalism contest 

The winners of the 2021 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism were announced Friday by AHCJ.

Now in its 18th year, the contest recognizes the best of print, broadcast and online health care journalism. The 2021 contest drew 439 entries in 14 categories; there were 14 first-place winners.

“We were thrilled to see so many journalists continuing to produce sterling work in 2021, which was the grueling second year of the pandemic,” said Tony Leys, a Des Moines Register reporter and AHCJ board member.

“Many pieces focused on COVID-19 concerns, but reporters also kept digging into the countless other vital areas of health care coverage.”

A new audio category this year highlighted great health care reporting for radio and podcasts. Dan Gorenstein, founder and executive editor of Tradeoffs, and Blake Farmer, a health care reporter for WPLN News and Nashville Public Radio, received top honors for their radio pieces.

Gorenstein’s project, which won the large-division award, shed light on how America’s largest health insurance companies moonlight “as obscure middlemen, managing billions of dollars in health care spending for many of the country’s biggest employers.” His radio story includes anecdotes that illustrate what can go wrong when employers outsource important spending to third-party administrators.

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One of the most important questions I ask during interviews 

Photo by Karen Elliott Edelson via Flickr.

When you’ve been a journalist for years, you develop rote patterns for many of your reporting activities — sites you always visit, online searches you always conduct (hopefully including background searches on sources), and questions you always ask during interviews. Interviews have long been my favorite aspect of reporting.

I’ve developed a long list of questions that guide me when I’m preparing for my next interview. But one question appears on every single list of prepared questions no matter who I’m talking to or what topic I’m covering: Is there anything else I should have asked you but didn’t that you want to address?

I can’t add up the number of times this question has been utterly crucial to my reporting. One instance completely changed my line of reporting and where I pitched the story, it was during an interview with a CDC official about a Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report, which are usually as dry as it gets. (It’s difficult to get them to answer anything that’s not already printed in the study.) When I asked that question at the end of the interview, the answer extended the interview another 15 minutes. The source pointed out a racial disparity in care that I had overlooked, leading me to make that fact the central angle of my story and heavily influencing who my outside experts were.

Other times, this question has led to other interviews (I also always ask who else they recommend I speak to), sudden epiphanies about the story I’m working on, the perfect kicker quote or lead, the final piece I needed to click into place for a nut graf, tips that become follow-up stories, tips that become stories on completely different topics altogether, and even just a collegial, informal follow-up conversation that cements a new relationship with a potentially helpful ongoing source.

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