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Director of journalism center reflects on students' coverage of dental clinic Date: 10/28/14

By Mary Otto

The Journalism Center on Children & Families (JCCF), formerly the Casey Journalism Center, is scheduled to close at the end of this year. Over the past 20 years, JCCF, based at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland, has pursued its mission of helping reporters do a better job of telling the stories of vulnerable people, young and old. 

Now funding is running out, as JCCF’s director Julie Drizin explained in her announcement. “The College has concluded that this Center is not sustainable in the current economic climate,” she said. “Indeed, these are very challenging times in the worlds of journalism and education.”

Journalism Center for Children & Families

Julie Drizin
Julie Drizin

Over the years, the center has offered grants, fellowships and other resources that have resulted in deeper coverage of health, justice and economic issues as they relate to children and families. In keeping with the center’s mission, Drizin has also been teaching an undergraduate class at the college of journalism. Just recently, she gathered a team of student reporters to cover a free two-day dental clinic sponsored by the University of Maryland School of Public Health’s Center for Health Equity as part of a larger Health Equity Festival. The dental clinic, which was held on the university’s basketball court with support from organizations including Mission of Mercy and Catholic Charities, aimed to provide $1 million in dental care to poor and uninsured adults. 

The student’s coverage of the 100-chair clinic resulted in a compelling assortment of stories that are packaged together on JCCF’ website as part of the regular  “On The Beat” feature. One of the most striking aspects of the students’ reporting is the variety of angles that they managed to find while all covering the same event. For instance, Marissa LaLiberte collected stories from folks who spent all night waiting in line, while Catherine Sheffo focused on the experience of a military veteran. Leo Traub followed up with a feature about the dentists who volunteered, and Karen Mawdsley looked at the issue of parents who let their own oral health suffer while taking care of the dental needs of their children. And these are just a few examples.

In this Q and A, Drizin was kind enough to reflect back on the project. She offers insights into how, as a teacher, she turned this free dental clinic into a window on the human condition for her class. She reflects upon the tradition of advocacy journalism. And she shares the best piece of advice she offered to her students as they headed out to cover the event.  

Q:  Can you tell us how these storylines evolved? Did each student decide on the facet of the event he or she wanted to tackle ahead of time or did they emerge with the reporting?

A: Stephen Thomas, who directs the Maryland Center for Health Equity, reached out to me last May to ask how Philip Merrill College of Journalism might get engaged in the Mission of Mercy Health Equity Festival he was helping to produce on campus, the first time such an event happened at a University. He explained how many of the other schools on campus were involved: Engineering was helping design the space; Public Health was coordinating patient education and screenings diabetes and hypertension; the Law school was providing counseling around medical debt. Dentistry was sending volunteers; Agriculture was sending nutritionists. What could the J-school do? Could we help document the event?

I offered to make covering this event the first assignment for the students in my class, which is about covering children, youth and families. Even though this event would not serve children, the primary focus of my class is really about covering issues of race and class, growing economic inequities and the impact of poverty on families. Just as the mouth is a window on a person’s health, this event could be a window on the human condition.

The hard part about it was the event was taking place the very first weekend of the school year and my class would only meet twice before getting plunged headfirst into the story. Fortunately for all of us, this event was conveniently located on campus. And, most of my students are juniors and seniors, so they already had some reporting experience. I contacted them over the summer to find out their availability that first weekend of school and created a coverage schedule. I also recruited Bethany Swain, a lecturer who teaches video storytelling, to assign this event to her ViewFinder class, even though her first class wasn’t scheduled until after the Festival. She brought her students in early for a training, paired new students with professionals or other recent graduates so that they would get the best possible video. I spoke to her class about the event to prepare them. I invited Dr. Thomas to speak to my class the day before the festival opened. He talked about Deamonte Driver, a local boy who died of an oral infection from lack of dental care. He addressed issues of health equity, the deep need for dental care and the use of emergency room visits for dental crises.

He described the entire event so that students would know what to expect when they arrived. He talked about how the people coming to this free clinic would have a slew of other health issues related to poverty. He informed us that of the thousands of people who showed up it would be their very first time stepping foot on the University of Maryland campus, which hasn’t been perceived as a welcoming place. He also talked about the double-edge sword of the volunteering dentists: their contribution is critical and huge, and they feel great to give free care today, but every other day they turn people away who cannot afford to pay for urgent care. We role-played interviews and talked about how to interact with people respectfully in that space. I created a list of potential story ideas, but I encouraged students to go there and find a story. Some of them grabbed assignments off the list while others went in search of a story.

Q: How much time did students spend preparing in advance for this event? What kind of guidance did you give them?

A: Students were given a few stories and studies to read in advance. I urged them to go there and talk to people and listen carefully. Ask permission to take photographs. Meet people at eye level. Recognize that people are in pain, that most haven’t been to the dentist in over a decade, that some will have many teeth pulled, that a smile is the first thing people notice, that teeth are a reflection of economic class, that bad teeth can be a source of shame. I spent a few hours there on a Friday afternoon and it was an exhilarating experience. The place was buzzing with volunteers. People were in such good spirits after 12 hours or more of waiting. I met a man whose significant other was getting care because her ex-boyfriend beat her up and destroyed a lot of her teeth. I hadn’t thought much about the dental needs of victims of domestic violence. I interviewed the very last person let into the arena on Friday morning, the last one to get dental care that day. You can watch that interview here.

Q: Can you share the best piece of advice you offered to the students as they headed out to the clinic?

A: Be a human being. You are going there as a journalist trying to get a story on deadline, but connect with people on a human level. That’s how you can make the most of this experience. Just keep your mind, your eyes, your ears and your heart open. Stories are everywhere.

Q: In terms of challenges, lessons learned and reader reaction, how did this dental clinic experience compare with other assignments your students have taken on?

A: Each story went through three levels of editing. We first circulated drafts in class, then two students were assigned to do fact checking, and I edited the final stories. These students are still learning the craft. Only about half of the pieces were publishable but I think that’s pretty good. There are one or two more I plan on publishing. Last year, my students did an in-depth reporting project on child care: the costs, the regulations, the choices parents make, the lack of male teachers/providers. I really can’t compare the work since this was team coverage of an event. It was a good experience for us all. By the way, Bethany Swain’s video students did an excellent job taking us into the heart of the Mission of Mercy Festival. Watch her video here.

Q: When you look at the body of work that grew out of this assignment, what impresses you most about it as a teacher and as a reader? What do you see as the overarching message these stories collectively convey?

A: I was really impressed with the sensitivity my students showed to the people they covered. One student spent the entire day with a woman who waited for treatment. We talk a lot in my class about “advocacy journalism.” I am one who embraces the proud tradition of journalism that is fair and accurate but actively engages people in solving problems or inspires positive social change. I think the big takeaway from this project – and from my class – is that journalism doesn’t have to detached and so-called objective to be solid; indeed, quite the opposite: empathy and compassion are important in life and in journalism and students should allow themselves to experience it. Just get the facts right and ask tough questions of everybody.