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How to find the ‘forgotten voices’ that will give your health stories power

Craft: Lessons From The Field

How to find the ‘forgotten voices’ that will give your health stories power

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Tracie Potts interviews potential sources for a broadcast series on health reform.
NBC correspondent Tracie Potts interviews potential sources for a broadcast series on health reform.

Data is the backbone of good reporting, but people make the audience care. A compelling personal story puts a face on impersonal facts and figures. Finding the right voice can be challenging. For our 14-part broadcast series “Forgotten Voices,” my producer and I looked for people who represent a wide variety of perspectives on health care — those helped by Affordable Care Act coverage, those hurt by its escalating costs, and those who are confused by how changes could affect their families.

Here’s how we found those powerful voices:

Plan: The advantage of a six-month project is that there’s time for research. For reporters used to working on tight deadlines (especially broadcast journalists like me), it’s a gift. Instead of finding and turning sources around quickly (using whoever calls back first), the fellowship allows time to thoroughly think through your approach and seek the best examples. Slow down. Adjust your mindset. Learn. Become a subject matter expert. Spend time reading, talking to advocates, professionals and other sources who can connect you to the right people to best illustrate your story. I spent a month doing research and learning more about my topic before seeking interviews.

Start at the end: Despite having months to complete the project, I felt we were on a fast track to make the deadline. So my producer and I planned our work just like we time a newscast — start at the end and work backward. We decided to air our health stories during the ACA open enrollment period in November — two months before the fellowship deadline. Then we “back-timed,” creating interim deadlines for completing travel and shooting, interviews and research. That gave me a sense of how long I had to shape my story before nailing down details. This is important since most of us aren’t completing our fellowships in a vacuum. Daily deadline pressures — and personal ones — constantly intervene. Setting specific deadlines toward a goal helped keep me on track. 

Use personal contacts: Experts and industry groups are great sources. But some of our best “voices” came through people I know. For example, as I looked for areas of the country with dwindling insurance options, my search kept leading me to a town where I worked more than 20 years ago. Before reaching out cold to health care sources in that area, I first contacted a former colleague. Her newsroom had covered the issue with a local health care advocate. That advocate connected me with the family I later interviewed. A few weeks later we headed 3,000 miles away to Los Angeles, where finding people can feel like seeking a needle in a haystack if you don’t live there. I remembered that a relative in LA worked in social services. She gave me a whole list of programs to contact. It was a helpful start.

Just say no: The gift of time allows flexibility to go down the wrong road, turn around, and try again. In Kentucky my producer thought she found the perfect story about the impact of health reform — a town where the area’s only hospital recently closed, prompting the area’s largest employer to shut down too. We found people eager to talk about it, but further research revealed that the reason the hospital closed had little to do with the Affordable Care Act. The hospital had financial problems long before. A small town losing its only hospital is still a great story, but not the story we were covering. It would have been a misleading example of the impact of the Affordable Care Act. We aborted, and ended up finding another, more relevant story.

Listen: Initially my producer and I struggled with a title for our series of reports. Then we interviewed Theresa Stamper, patient at a health clinic in Kentucky. She echoed what we heard from many people confused by Washington’s decisions on health care. “We feel forgotten, like Washington’s not listening to us.” An epiphany! Her thoughts led our series title “Forgotten Voices.”

Be flexible: Sometimes mundane conversations produce unexpected results. While scheduling a shoot with a health navigator in Tennessee, he mentioned that he’d be unavailable one afternoon because he had a final walk-through at the local church where their ACA enrollment kickoff would be held. I asked if we could tag along. As it turned out, someone from another group I’d been pursuing was there as well. Not only did we kill two birds with one stone, but the pastor had a compelling personal story about his own family’s challenges surviving illness and accidents without health insurance. His “voice” became a separate story.

Embrace surprises: There we were — my producer, photographer and I — waiting in a clinic hallway to interview a local “rock star” doctor who was running late after his daily morning run. Exam rooms were full. The waiting room was full. We’d traveled hundreds of miles for this interview, and I was starting to feel his busy patient schedule would squeeze us out. We watched as he darted in and out of exam rooms, not stopping for us to quickly clip a microphone on his lapel. Then suddenly he comes out of a room, walks right up to our crew and says, “You’ve got to interview this woman.” We did. The woman was Susan Moore. Her poignant story of choosing death over medical bills became the most popular report in our series. We finally talked to her doctor too. It was worth the wait. His interview became one of our “In your own words” stories. Both voices were strong.

Listen to everyone: In the waiting room of a rural health clinic I sat next to a woman who looked tired. She’d been waiting more than two hours for the “rock star” doctor. She told me she worked on the clinic’s overnight cleaning crew then came straight to a morning appointment. I thought surely she’d be frustrated, but she was willing to wait. She said she appreciated having quality health care in a small town, thanks to the Affordable Care Act expansion there. I couldn’t talk her into going on camera but we did interview a woman who had insurance and thought many of her Medicaid neighbors were milking the system. Our crew also listened to an elderly man’s anti-media rant as he stood in line waiting for the clinic doors to open. We couldn’t convince him to go on camera either. But their perspectives are important. They all helped shape how I wrote my stories.

Let in breathe: My producer and I quickly realized that 15-second sound bites weren’t always the most effective way to convey these stories. So we expanded our series to include “In your own words” essays, allowing the people we found to tell their own stories.

Reporting this fellowship project reminded me of my first job in TV news. Fresh out of college, I was the new health reporter for a small TV station in Alabama. My daily task was to “localize” studies in major medical journals by finding local people suffering from those conditions. It was jokingly called the “disease of the day” beat. At 8 a.m. I was looking at a new JAMA report on cystic fibrosis and by 2 p.m. I had to find someone in this small town who had it and convince them to talk about it to strangers on TV — “in the next two hours please.” I surprised myself at how often we convinced people to share their personal health stories on deadline.

I guess I’ve been “finding voices” on health care for much longer than I thought.



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The USC Center for Health Journalism at the Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism is seeking two Engagement Editors and a social media consultant to join its team. Learn more about the positions and apply.


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