Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field
Reporting on a well-known topic such as diabetes? Don’t assume it’s all been said before
Nearly one-third of Americans have pre-diabetes and most of them don’t know it. That was the stat that slid across my desk about a year ago and stuck with me.
In Los Angeles County, that figure is nearly half of all residents, and Latinos and African-Americans get the disease at higher rates than other groups and face serious complications most often — high blood pressure, heart disease, blindness and amputations.
Type 2 diabetes is not new. It’s a chronic disease. There is not a cute dancing pancreas at the non-existent Type 2 diabetes walk. It is not a killer like cancer; it is a slow and long-living disease. But it’s one that no one really talks about because it is brought on mostly by diet and obesity and it is managed through nutrition and exercise.
“Everyone knows about diabetes.”
“There’s nothing new about diabetes.”
“Diet and exercise, everyone knows that.”
Those are the kinds of comments I heard from my editors when I suggested we do a story or series about the growing number of people impacted by the disease.
My challenge: making what seemed like a familiar topic interesting and new, and figuring out what kind of insights I could offer about diabetes and the families it affects.
The diabetes project was intended to reveal the challenge of diabetes on low-income families of color. Access to care, managing the disease and changing lifestyles are the biggest struggles. My editors and I also wanted to explore the notion that in many families where multiple generations have the disease, it is accepted among the younger generation that getting the disease is inevitable.
Statistics helped me make my case. The number of Americans affected by the disease is huge. About 30 million people have diabetes in the U.S. — that’s close to 10 percent of the population. Another one-third have pre-diabetes, which means millions more are well on their way to being diagnosed with the disease.
Another interesting nugget that I found through research was a demonstrated genetic predisposition among Latinos for diabetes. People with indigenous heritage tend to be more insulin resistant. Genetics coupled with the traditional American diet — high in fat and sugar, low in fiber — and a sedentary lifestyle make for a lethal combination especially for those who live in poverty.
I studied both the biologic, social and cultural determinants to find a new way to tell the story. Latino culture played a large role in figuring out the narrative. Language barriers, beliefs about weight, acculturation and changes in diet and lack of access to health care are all factors. In particular, some families believe being overweight indicates health and wellness. I found, through my reporting, this was especially challenging for pediatric doctors trying to explain the dangers of obesity and diabetes to parents.
With these stats and interviews about the latest efforts to manage and cure the disease I was able to move forward with the stories. I found the family I profiled through the experts I had interviewed in preparation for the story.
The family I wrote about was not the first one I reached out to. Getting people to talk about how diabetes has impacted their family and their attitudes about it can be difficult but it is possible. As with any story finding the right characters makes the storytelling possible. The communications professionals and the doctors were extremely helpful in connecting me with potential families until I found the right one.
After the stories aired I heard from many listeners and readers who said that our story about the family revealed a side of dealing with the disease they had never thought about before — the daily medication, the difficulties finding and eating the right foods, and maintaining the discipline to exercise daily.
I would recommend to anyone trying to write about or produce stories about a generally well-known topic to still push ahead. Find the new angle, study the science, talk to the experts, explore the daily life of those impacted by the issue. It’s worth it.
The second thing I recommend is finding a good guide. The most important piece of my research was an interview with Dr. Thomas Buchanan, a diabetes expert at the USC Keck School of Medicine. He spent a considerable amount of time answering my questions about the disease, how it impacts communities of color and his own diabetes research. He provided the expertise I needed to move forward with my reporting.
Lastly, use as much of the material you collect as you can. I had so many interviews and so much information we were able to do two different two-ways (reporter and host in conversation), with one for a news segment and one for a daily show. Each had a different focus. The news segment looked at what scientific efforts are underway to treat and manage the disease and the show segment focused exclusively on how children are being diagnosed in record numbers and what is contributing to the rise.
Since my project aired I have changed outlets but I am still working on the topic of diabetes. I cover health and social services policy and diabetes and obesity are at the top of the agenda. Working on this project gave me the foundation for many more stories around diabetes in the future.
I’m happy to discuss this or other health-related stories with other reporters. You can reach me at Elizabeth@calmatters.org.