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USC’s Center for Health Reporting earns three-year grant

From left, John Gonzales, Richard Kipling, David Westphal, Lauren Whaley, Emily Bazar, Deborah Schoch and Bobby Kirkwood (Photo/Courtesy of USC Annenberg)

A new three-year, $3.725 million grant from the California HealthCare Foundation (CHCF) will further the work of the CHCF Center for Health Reporting, based at the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism, which covers health-related issues in the Golden State.

“The grant will pay for a continuation of the kind of in-depth reporting about California health policy that we’ve been doing,” said David Westphal, the center’s editor in chief.

The CHCF center, which was established in 2009 at USC Annenberg, is a partnership among the foundation, the school and more than 60 print, online, radio and television media partners throughout California.

“Over the past three years, the center has played a crucial role in supporting high-quality reporting on important health care issues with dozens of media partners across our state,” said Mark Smith, president and CEO of the CHCF. “In these particularly turbulent times for both the media and health care, the need for thoughtful, dispassionate reporting remains high. And the center is well-positioned to fill that role.”

Directed by Michael Parks, former director of the School of Journalism and Los Angeles Times editor in chief, the center employs journalists who are overseen by Westphal and Managing Editor Richard Kipling. The journalists craft multimedia reports intended to spotlight, examine and explain issues in detail and, whenever possible, impact policy and solutions.

The new grant provides a $440,000 increase from the CHCF’s initial three-year funding — support that concluded on Aug. 31. The new contribution will fund the salaries of seven journalists, up one from the original group.

The additional salary is for a broadcast reporter, a position that had already been filled by Sacramento-based Kelley Weiss. The center’s other journalists are senior writers Emily Bazar, John Gonzales and Deborah Schoch; multimedia reporter Lauren Whaley; and Web producer and research associate Erin Leiker. Bobby Kirkwood is the program’s coordinator.

On Sept. 13, Bazar and Health Journalism fellow Jocelyn Wiener received a California Journalism Award for excellence in print-special feature/enterprise reporting for a story on dental practices.

The story, which appeared in The Sacramento Bee, was part of a larger, long-term reporting effort by the center. Under the umbrella title, “Cavity Kids,” the center’s reporters looked into a managed-care dental program for children in Sacramento County and discovered that only 30 percent of the youngsters enrolled in the program had visited a dentist during the 2010-11 fiscal year. The reporters found that this statistic was nominal compared to a statewide average of nearly 50 percent.

“This kind of shocked the political leaders in California,” Westphal said.

State leaders quickly took action in response to the center’s report. New regulations were rolled out by the department that oversees the program. And a new state law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, sets out to prevent further failures of access to youth dental programs.

“This is the kind of work that we hope we can do,” Westphal said of the reporting and its aftermath. “We can explore in very substantial and deep ways important health programs in California and spotlight ones that aren’t working — as this program clearly wasn’t.”

In addition to changing the conversation — and sometimes the law — regarding health issues, the center is also part of nationwide experimental efforts to rethink the future of journalism.

When the center launched three years ago, Westphal said, there were questions about whether a foundation-funded news organization — in this case affiliated with a university — could produce work that would be accepted and published by independent news organizations.

Given the decline in private media funding for health beat writers, all involved agreed the center was an experiment worth taking.

Now with 68 completed projects and three additional years of operation assured, Westphal said the center has been a success.

“Not only from the standpoint of the foundation’s investment,” he said, “but also from the standpoint of a learning laboratory for the university and the journalism school.”

USC’s Center for Health Reporting earns three-year grant

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