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Freelancer wins AHCJ award for beat reporting, explains her process Date: 05/08/20

Patricia Kime

By Carolyn Crist 

The 2019 Awards for Excellence in Health Care Journalism were announced recently, and the top spot for the premier Beat Reporting Award went to Patricia Kime, an AHCJ freelancer based in Alexandria, Va. For the award application, Kime submitted a series of military health care stories she reported for prestigious outlets such as the New York Times Magazine and Military Times. In a recent phone interview, Kime talked about her reporting and writing process, as well as her freelance business.

Question: Freelancers typically don’t apply for and win the Beat Reporting Award. How did you feel when you heard the news?

Answer: I was surprised because AHCJ members are amazing, and the writing that they put out is incredible. When I looked at who else was recognized for beat reporting, I was humbled to see the other names who do quality work. I felt honored to be named as a freelancer as well because you always have to look for more work to pay the bills but also stay on top of big projects. As a staff writer, it can be easier to carve out time if editors want the story, but as a freelancer, you have to figure it out for yourself.

Q:  What prompted you to apply for the award?

A: Last year was a good year for me in terms of several big stories coming to a head in my unusual niche. With the pandemic, more people are paying attention to the nation’s military response and Veterans Affairs response. Military medicine is on the forefront of minds in a way that it hasn’t been for years. In addition, my editor at encourages writers to apply for awards. She’s supportive and values it, which is helpful.

Q: What sparked your interest in military health care?

A: I’ve been covering military personnel and health care off and on for a couple of decades. My husband is a retired Marine, and I started my career in journalism when we moved frequently. Finding a job at each new duty station was a big challenge, and at our first station, I applied at the newspaper. At first, I covered family issues surrounding deployments, and when we moved to the Washington, D.C. area, I worked for the Military Times group of publications that owns Army Times, Navy Times, Air Force Times, Marine Corps Times and others. I’ve worked as a freelancer at various points during the past 20 years and returned to it full time in 2016. This niche is my primary focus now, though I write features for other magazines as well.

Q: Your stories have a common thread of unsupportive bureaucracies or processes, which you discussed in your application for the award. What inspires you to write about these themes?

A: Our mantra at Military Times was to give a voice to the people who otherwise escape typical notice — the boots on the ground — in a department that is sometimes overwhelmed by a constant operational tempo and a tendency to be dismissive of complaints from younger or newer troops. We wanted to keep the military health care system transparent, and it’s sometimes hard to get at the system and understand what’s happening. People who are harmed by that system or who experience injustices should have a voice.

Q: How did you find the ideas for the stories included in your award application?

A: Every story submitted came from a tip. Because I’ve been on the beat for quite some time, I tend to figure out what’s new and what’s important and what may have a broad impact. A lot of people send me emails, and sometimes an idea crosses my desk that I know I need to investigate further. For most of the stories, I receive a tip, figure out what information needs to be obtained, file Freedom of Information Act requests and amass a list of potential sources who may talk once the FOIA comes back. Then I launch into the interview process, gather the transcripts, reassess what the story is, write an outline and develop a rough draft. Throughout the process, you often find that the initial tip tells you that a story is out there, but it’s not exactly what develops into the final piece.

Q: How do you manage these projects as part of your freelance business?

A: It can be tough to balance. I enjoy daily writing, so I tend to push off big projects. Process-wise, I try to knock out my daily demands by the early afternoon, so I can carve out time in the later afternoon hours to do bigger projects. Now that many of us are working from home during the pandemic, I think we’re finding that it’s hard to stop in the evening and carve out free time for ourselves, too.

Q: The lead exposure story in the New York Times Magazine took five years, according to your application! How did you handle that?

A: The FOIA process took three years, which still irritates me. I received a tip about high lead exposure and interviewed soldiers who had tested high for lead, but I was still waiting on the FOIA information. Even when my job changed during that time, I never gave up on the story. Then I finally received the Army records, and they would not disclose information for privacy reasons, though I asked for data and not personal records. The Air Force and Navy sent the information I needed, so the Army’s response is what motivated me to finish the story. The answers I received from the Department of Defense were also not forthcoming, and I thought this story had to be published. Stubbornness motivated me.

Q: What are you working on this year in your beat?

A: Besides the obvious, which is the military and Veterans Affairs response around COVID-19, there is going to be a discussion about public health in America, our readiness and our system, including how it is set up and whether it works. The actions and lessons learned are going to be fascinating. Beyond that, a broader public health discussion needs to be had in regard to funding, environmental exposures and global health. We need to look at the health of the planet and how it affects us. Where do we go from here, and how do we tackle the big questions of pollution and the environment?

Q: What advice do you have for AHCJ members, both freelancers and staff writers?

A: Know your audience. If you embark on a project that you find interesting, make sure you think about where it will publish, which helps you focus on what needs to go into the story. When I write for different outlets, I know whether I’m writing for a military audience that understands military terms or a general audience that needs different explanations or answers. I’ve seen stories morph and change directions when I had to change publications, as I did with the lead exposure piece. Hold on to all of your notes and know who you’re talking to during your writing process.