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Project helps student reporters bring health issues to life in remote corner of Georgia Date: 08/10/16

Patricia Thomas

By Patricia Thomas

Reporting on rural health issues is no small task. There’s a question of logistics, drives are long and no one may want to talk once you arrive. Now try making a 400-mile round-trip over five days full of daily reporting excursions with nine students in tow and you’ve got yourself a real reporting adventure.

As the head of the University of Georgia graduate program in health and medical journalism, I did just that earlier this year. There was no shortage of challenges, but the results were nothing short of inspiring.

At one rundown clinic in Clay County, Georgia, we found Dr. Karen Kinsell, who has been the area’s sole physician for 13 years. Few would know much about it or her, but a story by Meera Naqvi, a graduate journalism student at the University of Georgia who was part of our road trip, takes readers inside her busy, rural practice.

Her piece was the first of nine articles about health care in Southwest Georgia that appeared on the nonprofit daily news site, Georgia Health News. The series, called “Place Matters: SW Georgia Health 2016,” grew from a collaboration between myself and former AHCJ board member Andy Miller.

Andy founded Georgia Health News in 2010, four years after I arrived at the University of Georgia to launch a new graduate program in health and medical journalism. My students began pitching stories to him right away, and over the years UGA student reporters have contributed more than 80 stories to Andy’s site. (Full disclosure: I’m on the news organization’s board, and Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication is a sponsor.)

Andy and I talk often about health disparities and access issues that plague Georgians, especially people of color and those living in poverty. Southwest Georgia came up frequently, because maps of health risks and outcomes show that seven of the state’s 10 least healthy counties are in this rural, economically depressed region.

We knew all school lunches are free in many counties because everyone is poor. Many small hospitals were closing for financial reasons. Yet this sad corner of the state also has people and groups working to make health care more equitable and accessible, prevent disease, and help reduce the stigma associated with HIV, mental disorders and developmental disabilities.

So we thought: wouldn’t it be great to take a team of student journalists to southwest Georgia and set them loose on these seldom-told stories? Ideally, these young reporters would focus on various parts of this vast, 30-county region. We’d give them enough time to connect with sources, follow leads, and tell visual as well as print stories.

Andy and I loved the idea, but there were challenges. Students needed excused absences from their other courses and time off from their paid assistantships. They needed meals, a safe place to stay, and cars that would not break down during a 400-mile round-trip and daily reporting excursions. More importantly, they needed story ideas, people to talk to and reporting strategies.

Undaunted, Andy and I decided last December to make it happen. We picked March 20-24 for the field reporting and began to prepare.

Journalism students from the University of Georgia share highlights of their days reporting on rural health issues. (Photo: Patricia Thomas, University of Georgia.)

Five Days, Nine Students

I already had taught eight of nine graduate students registered for the spring health and medical journalism course, and was confident they could share cars and coordinate schedules. Most also were enrolled in an introductory epidemiology course at UGA’s College of Public Health and in a visual storytelling course here at Grady College. When I told their instructors about our reporting project, they agreed to let students miss classes. The students’ work supervisors were also on board.

Budget planning and content development came next. Our program administrator quickly figured that 11 people could travel on a five-day reporting trip for less than $9,000 and comply with state travel regulations. The total included compensation for Andy, who would be my co-instructor. It helped that in the rural, economically depressed region, hotel rooms and meals cost far less than in urban areas.

Pursuing stories in scattered counties also would mean driving miles on lightly traveled two-lane roads through vast agribusiness fields. We decided to rent five cars for student drivers aged over 25 and one for me. Andy would have his own vehicle, and we coordinated interviews so no one would drive alone on isolated roads.

Next we tapped potential funders. By late January we had secured $7,500 in travel support made possible by the Ford Foundation, plus $1,300 from the Broun Fund, a family endowment to the Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication.

Then the hard part: figuring out how to help relatively inexperienced reporters – only one of whom had even visited southwest Georgia – report, write and produce solid health stories in five days.

The students already had chosen beats for the semester, including aging, HIV/AIDS, chronic disease, obesity, women’s health and developmental disabilities. So their rural reporting would also revolve around those same issues.

Making It Work

If the Place Matters project was going to work, students needed to make connections in southwest Georgia long before they paired up in rental cars and headed south in March. They needed to find the personal stories that make health journalism come to life.

Guest speakers were key: a physician-epidemiologist whose research focuses on chronic disease, aging and health policy; a veteran county health nurse; an expert on Georgia’s health workforce; the national leader of Black Women’s Health Initiative. Andy drove from Atlanta twice to talk about pending closures of nursing homes and hospitals and counties where access to care was especially grim. He also suggested story ideas that would work well for Georgia Health News readers.

Each student was required to schedule at least one appointment for Monday, the start of our four days based in Albany. But we also emphasized that while reporters need to plan ahead, a bigger, better story might surface once they began reporting. Several pieces in the series came about exactly that way.

The students returned from their reporting trips each evening to the lobby of the hotel, surrounded by an old city center gutted by hard times. Some had driven 100 miles and gotten lost in the process. Andy and I listened to tired, anxious, sometimes anguished students detail what had gone well and what had not. We urged them on:

“If what you came to write about turns out not to be a story, it’s not the end of the world. If you stumble across something important, a genuinely helpful program that few know about, then jump on it. If you come across something heartbreaking, write about it. And shoot some pictures.”

Someone said the words “out of my comfort zone” every evening. Sometimes students came in shell-shocked by poverty that they did not know existed in their own country. Across the street from the hotel, a life-sized statue of Albany native Ray Charles, seated at a grand piano, rotated slowly in the dusk. It was surrounded by a lighted, dancing fountain and invisible speakers played, “Georgia on My Mind.”

In the end, nine stories, many with photo galleries or videos were published. The series can be found at Georgia Health News and at Grady’s Health and Medical Journalism page. Like the song, this experience won’t be easily forgotten.

Patricia Thomas was a writer and editor for more than three decades, specializing in science, health and medicine. She joined the faculty at Grady College of Journalism and Mass Communication in 2005.