Conference explores how to cover, boost rural health

By David Gross, Center for Rural Health, University of Kentucky, March 2005

HAZARD, Ky. -- Medicaid and Medicare systems in seemingly constant flux. New developments in e-health and telemedicine. HMOs vs. PPOs.

From bureaucratic red tape and technological innovations to a sea of jargonistic acronyms, even those who work in health care acknowledge it is not an industry that is easily understood.

Thus is presented a quandary for the news media – particularly rural outlets that are often understaffed – to translate complex medical information for a broad and varied audience, and help them lead healthier lives.

To make that task less daunting, the recent conference, “Covering Health Care and Health in Mid-Appalachia,” sought to improve health-related news coverage by providing information and causes for the region’s health status, contacts and resources in the agencies specializing in health care, and ways journalists in the region can cover these subjects in the hope of helping their readers, listeners and viewers make better decisions about their health care and their health.

“As health care becomes more complicated, it is more daunting to cover,” Judy Owens, director of the University of Kentucky Center for Rural Health, which hosted the Feb. 25 conference, told journalists from newspapers, television and radio. “But it is all the more necessary that you do so on behalf of the communities you serve.

“Rural communities are very dependent on the local news media to act as their advocates,” said Owens, herself a former rural-based reporter for the state’s two largest newspapers, Louisville’s Courier-Journal and the Lexington Herald-Leader. “It’s imperative in this age that someone provide a voice for people living in these rural communities. Reporters really should be that voice.”

The conference was sponsored by the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, which is dedicated to strengthening and invigorating local newspapers and broadcast stations so they can better define the public agenda in their communities and help their audiences understand how the public is affected by regional, state and national issues. The institute is headquartered at UK’s School of Journalism and Telecommunications and has academic partners at eight other universities serving parts of Appalachia..

IRJCI Director Al Cross said health should be a primary focus among media outlets in rural Kentucky, where rates of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and smoking are among the nation’s highest. At the same time, that need for medical services has made health care one of the area’s major employers.

But numerous factors – from the corporatization of formerly individually owned weekly newspapers to economic concerns that have resulted in short-handed news staffs – at times have combined to limit substantive coverage of health care, the environment and the other issues on which the Institute is focused.

“The news media in Appalachia could play a key role in improving the region’s health,” said Cross, former political writer for The Courier-Journal. “But all too often, most of the health care information some outlets carry is advertising from providers looking for patients.” Cross encouraged journalists to ask tough questions like, “Why is health care so expensive, and why is it so ineffective in central Appalachia?”

Other presentations at the conference, which brought together nearly 100 journalists, health care professionals and interested citizens from a handful of Appalachian states, included:

“Appalachian Health Issues and Journalism’s Role in Addressing Them,” by Bruce Behringer, assistant vice president for rural health and assistant dean at East Tennessee State University’s College of Medicine;

“How Health Issues Relate to Other Issues in Central Appalachia,” by Wayne Myers, former head of the U.S. Office of Rural Health Policy, former president of the National Rural Health Association and former director of the UK Center for Rural Health;

“Health Care as an Economic Engine in Rural Areas,” by Eric Scorsone, an assistant professor in UK’s Department of Agricultural Economics; and

“Taking it Home to Your Newsroom: A Roundtable Discussion,” led by Gil Friedell, director emeritus of UK's Markey Cancer Center, who addressed community issues, and Herald-Leader reporter Jim Warren, who focused on media challenges.

Myers told conference attendees that poverty crosses all racial and ethnic bounds in central Appalachia and is at the root of its health problems. He said the region’s health care is no worse than anywhere else, but he and other presenters noted that its cancer death rates among people aged 35 to 64 are disproportionately higher, reflecting a shortage of screening – which Cross said could be addressed by feature stories about cancer victims who survived because they were screened.

Cross suggested that the region’s newspapers give prominent display to health-oriented news, citing a front-page story and editorial from the Greenup County News-Times about an anti-obesity grant received by the local school system.

Cross also suggested that newspapers could use their ability to “sample copy” every household in their counties to reach non-subscribers with health information, and cover the cost with ads from health care providers. Better yet, newspapers can seek sponsors for such expanded circulation, enabling them to count it as paid circulation. Potential sponsors include physicians, clinics, hospitals and other providers.

The conference seems already to have had a positive effect. In Jackson, for example, Breathitt County Voice Editor Colleen Hornsby said her newspaper has since printed features on a cancer survivor and the importance of physical therapy.

“The conference was a boon for those of us from small newspapers,” said Edmund Shelby, editor and general manager of The Beattyville Enterprise. “It is rare for us to hear from just a few experts, but to be briefed by a series of nationally recognized health care providers was a treat. I am looking forward to using some of the information I gleaned in future articles.”

So, too, is Harlan Daily Enterprise Staff Writer Adrienne Steinfeldt. “The conference was an avalanche of information – facts and contacts I can really use. I left energized and ready to dig for better health care stories, seeing that my coverage can go far beyond the one-shot story,” she said. “Too often at small papers, I think, we scramble from fire to fire without stopping to reflect in print on the larger issues and trends at hand. The media can and should be a driving force behind improved health and health care in the mountains; the conference pointed to practical ways to embrace that responsibility.

“The conference provided me with a more regional look at the health issues I see in my community. It’s easy to feel isolated at a small, rural paper, hard to make significant connections between the news we write and the rest of the world. The Institute for Rural Journalism and the Center for Rural Health, by joining forces, provided the connections we so need.”


Institute for Rural Journalism & Community Issues
School of Journalism and Telecommunications, College of Communications & Information Studies
122 Grehan Building, University of Kentucky, Lexington KY 40506-0042
Phone 859-257-3744 - Fax 859-323-3168

Al Cross, director al.cross@uky.edu