Rural newspapers don’t write a lot of health stories — but they should, expert says

“If a newspaper can’t stand for better health and better health care, then what in the world can it stand for?” This was the galvanizing statement of a talk today by Al Cross, director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, who keynoted the third annual Kentucky Health Literacy Summit. Cross discussed ways newspapers are — and aren’t — publishing health-related stories on their pages.
A research paper Cross presented with University of Kentucky graduate student Sarah Vos yesterday showed that with a few exceptions, rural newspapers in the state are not publishing many articles about health care and health. The vast majority of articles — 71 percent — run on the inside of the paper rather than on the front page. In large part, stories are institutionally oriented, Cross said, often pertaining to promoting the local hospital or reporting on problems with it.
Interviews with rural publishers and editors in Kentucky and Mississippi showed “while many of them believe health coverage is important, they are reluctant to be seen as crusading in the news columns for a cause, even if it is one that usually has no countervailing interest,” Cross said. He said Kentucky editors are specifically reluctant to point out health disparities comparing their community to neighbors, the state or nation, because they want to build up the community “rather than going out of their way to point out local problems that have no easy solutions.”
Another issue is that most of Kentucky’s 150 newspapers serve very small markets, which “mean less revenue, small staffs and low pay, so most of these newspapers lack the resources to do what we journalists call enterprise reporting,” Cross said. And with all but two Kentucky dailies owned by corporate chains, that can mean “less news space, fewer staff members, more focus on number of stories rather than quality, less focus on community service, more on bottom line,” he said.
However, rural newspapers continue to have considerable influence over their readership, with 60 percent of adults saying their local paper is their primary source of news. Their content is almost entirely local. Thus, Cross said, there are opportunities — and ones that don’t require a lot of legwork. A story about someone’s life being saved because she got a cancer screening can make a big impact, he said, and sometimes an article written by an outside source, such as a local extension agent, “doesn’t need to be put on page 12.” Cross said. Newspapers can use social media, such as Facebook, to promote their stories and find local people willing to talk about a health issue.
Cross also recommended Kentucky Health News as a service editors can rely on for stories that can be used verbatim or be easily localized. Cross noted newspapers are using the service, and “We think we are moving the needle.”
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