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Grant winners to study health care in America

by Kristen Villarreal
Journalists visited Skid Row, above, and the Center for Community Health. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)
Photo: Journalists visited Skid Row, above, and the Center for Community Health. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Twenty-two journalists gathered for five days in Los Angeles as part of a program administered by the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism’s California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships, which encourage grantees to explore how the location a person lives in can impact his or her mental, physical and emotional health.

The journalists from major news organizations around the country were awarded grants, ranging from $2,000 to $6,000, funded by the Dennis A. Hunt Fund for Health Journalism and the National Health Journalism Fellowship — initiatives that aim to change the way journalists and the public view health reporting. Over the coming months, the journalists will publish in-depth pieces exploring a range of topics, including women’s health care in Texas, health risks faced by children in Detroit and the costs of care for aging prisoners.

“Our program has helped to redefine the health beat in news outlets across America, encouraging journalists to include an exploration of how community conditions influence health,” said Michelle Levander, founding director of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships.

Grantees attended seminars and workshops hosted by influential speakers and attended field trips to health-related landmarks around LA.

The group’s first field trip focused on housing and homelessness. Grantees visited Los Angeles’ Skid Row, a highly populated hub of homeless Angelenos, the majority of whom face drug-related, mental and physical health problems. They also visited the Center for Community Health, one of the dozen downtown clinics that provide a wide range of care for the homeless.

The trip was prefaced by an hourlong talk from Los Angeles Times columnist Steve Lopez, who perhaps is best known for his column on homelessness and mental health as he came to know Nathaniel Ayers, a homeless, schizophrenic alumnus of the Julliard School. His talk focused on his relationship with Ayers and how what started as an interesting topic for his column became a defining moment in his life and a window into the often underreported mental health beat.

Anthony Advincula, right, interviews William Pickle, executive director of West Bay Housing. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

Anthony Advincula, right, interviews William Pickle, executive director of West Bay Housing. (USC Photo/Gus Ruelas)

One fellow, New America Media’s Anthony Advincula, strives to shed light on the mental health of U.S.-born children who have experienced the deportation of one or both parents. Advincula is one of 15 National Health Journalism fellows who received a $2,000 grant for his proposal.

“I did initial research on this topic, and while the media has been covering the consequences of deportation on children, whether they are being adopted or are ending up in foster homes, their mental health has been underreported,” said Advincula, who wants to use anecdotal storytelling to express the trauma and depression of the individuals he interviews.

“Just like Mr. Lopez, I think there is a power in storytelling through the lens of a person being affected by the law,” Advincula said.

The winning 22 projects stood out from a pool of more than 80 submitted proposals, a number that made the evaluation process tough for the eight judges.

“We had so many great projects to choose from,” Levander said. “In the end, a consensus emerged on those that broke new ground, that tackled reporting on familiar problems in innovative ways and that promised to engage policymakers and community members with valuable insights and data.”

Becca Aaronson, an Austin-based reporter for The Texas Tribune, was awarded a $5,000 Dennis A. Hunt Grant for a project that will cover how changing public policies affect women’s health services in Texas.

“In 2011, the legislature basically decimated financing for our family planning system, and now they are trying to rebuild a network of family planning providers in the state,” Aaronson said. “My project is going to look at the two financing streams and compare the impact they are having on women’s access to health care and family planning services.”

Aaronson said she plans to use the grant to collect data, hire consultants to assist with the comparison of programs and eventually build a data application and interactive map to show how access to women’s health care and services have changed across the state.

PBS NewsHour reporter and producer Jason Kane will use his grant to build a multimedia map that allows people to see the impact of food insecurity on low-income children throughout the country.

“Some of the research that has been conducted over the past several years looks at physical ways children are impacted when they don’t have a reliable source of food for even a brief period of time in their childhood,” Kane said. “We’ll be looking at that research, as well as different strategies that are being employed in different communities around the country that seem to be working and explore whether the ones that you hear about all the time are actually working.”

According to Kane, his project will ask whether tactics like offering food stamps in farmer’s markets can combat “food swamps,” which refers to the overwhelming amount of cheap and seemingly more affordable junk foods in convenience stores and supermarkets.

“We are heartened to see our fellows tackle these important and complex topics in investigative and explanatory projects,” Levander said. “We expect great things from them.”

View more pictures from the housing and health field trip: