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Two veteran reporters have ideas for boosting your health policy coverage

Two veteran reporters have ideas for boosting your health policy coverage

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Two veteran journalists offered a master-level primer in health policy reporting in this week’s Center for Health Journalism webinar, describing everything from their morning rituals to how they approach some of the country’s biggest stories.

The Miami Herald’s Daniel Chang and Victoria Colliver of Politico shared tips and insights to help reporters navigate the often daunting and jargon-filled world of health care.

“You’re not going to be able to cover all of it,” said Chang, who began covering health care in 2013. “You have to spend some time getting to know your community and what your community excels at.”

Mining sources with morning coffee

For Chang, it’s all starts with the morning routine. He advised fellow journalists to pick up the phone every morning and connect with the community. 

“I can’t overstate this small ritual,” he said. “If you do it right and mine the trusted sources, you’ll find out what’s ahead … story ideas will begin to materialize and your coverage is going to benefit immensely.”

For him, these sources could include everyone from hospital administrators, doctors, nurses, and patient advocates to health care economists and attorneys.

When thinking about your beat, consider the major health issues facing your community, such as access to care, physician shortages, or the opioid crisis. Then, make it your business to know everything about that topic and the stakeholders. This approach will allow you to focus on the most important aspects without spreading yourself too thin, he said.

Another tip: Think about what your audience cares about, and how health policies directly impacts them. For example, stories on surprise medical bills and narrow networks will likely hit home with readers.

To better understand readers’ interests, talk to your local legal aid office, or call local legislators to see what constituents may be complaining about, he said. Look over the community health needs assessment for your local nonprofit hospital. Reach out to advocates who tend to have their eye on the big picture.

Diving into a new beat

Colliver knows firsthand how challenging it can be covering the health policy beat. Despite being a longtime health and medical writer, she faced new hurdles as Politico Pro’s California-based health care reporter.

Along with learning the new “D.C. lingo,” she had to cultivate new sources in the policy arena – something she achieved in typical beat-building style with meet-and-greets that “helped reenergize me in a new area,” she said.

When covering topics for Politico, she carefully considers her audience and why they might care about a health policy story in California. Why, for example, would a health executive in Minnesota want to read her article? While Chang typically focused on localizing broader policy stories to South Florida, Colliver has to find ways of making California news resonate with a national audience.

Colliver has the further challenge of writing for two very different audiences. In articles for Politico Pro, she understands that her audience — often health policy experts, executives, attorneys or lobbyists — likely has a deep understanding of industry and policy. For the broader Politico audience, she aims for a more general, easily understood piece.

Like Chang, Colliver highlighted the importance of a morning routine. She starts her day by reading morning briefings such Kaiser Health News, the Capitol Morning Report and Politico Pulse. She’ll also review newsletters and blogs from industry insiders. Each day, she’ll pull together a list of what issues or storylines she needs to watch.

In the beginning of the legislative session, Colliver tries to discern the major themes of the year, and which bills are the most important. For example, this year California was “pushing back against Trump” on various fronts.  

For building sources, Colliver recommended finding places where “you can get a lot of people in one room,” such as conferences. It’s also useful to seek connections that will help you navigate complicated issues such as managed care and health care pricing.

Immerse yourself in health care

The speakers encouraged journalists to fully immerse themselves in health care, whether it be joining trade organizations or reading journal articles.

Specifically, they pointed to Health Affairs and JAMA as quality journals, as well as Health News Review for tips on improving your critical thinking in health coverage. PubMed, which compiles medical literature, is useful to find independent experts who might comment on a new study.  And the Association of Health Care Journalists and the Center for Health Journalism help journalists connect with each other and learn more about the beat from their peers.

As for the critical yet challenging task of humanizing a health story, Chang and Colliver pointed to social media as well as patient advocacy groups. Colliver said she saves some reader emails in a file in case she later needs them for a story.

Ultimately, when you’re reaching out to a source, think about what motivates them, Chang advised.

“Often, they want to help others – appeal to that,” he said.

 **

Watch the full presentation here:  

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