Illuminating Impacts: A New Journalism Fund on Healthcare Inequities

 photo:  Chaikom/shutterstock

photo:  Chaikom/shutterstock

The field of health journalism got a big boost not long ago thanks to the launch of the USC Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism's Center for Health Journalism Impact Fund, which aims to support "results-focused, explanatory, and investigative reporting on the health of underserved communities."

The fund, bankrolled by the California Wellness Foundation, will "bring untold health stories to light through groundbreaking reporting that can expose inequities and investigate promising approaches to chronic ills,” said Center for Health Journalism Director Michelle Levander.

The deadline for the first round of grants is February 15, 2018. Grants will range from $2,000 to $10,000, depending on the scope of the project.

I'll loop back to take a closer look at the details of the fund in a moment. But first, I'd like to step back and frame it within the larger journalism philanthropy landscape.

More Post-Trump Journalism Philanthropy

If you checked out our 2017 Philanthropy Awards, you'll know that the biggest philanthropic "winner" from the Trump election was nonprofit journalism organizations. Funders worried about an onslaught of disinformation led to a windfall for journalism outfits and media initiatives to safeguard the integrity of news.

The creation of Annenberg's Health Journalism Impact Fund must be viewed within this context.

In August, the Trump administration announced sharp cuts in programs promoting healthcare enrollment under the Affordable Care Act. The recent tax bill, meanwhile, repealed the individual mandate, which kept costs low by requiring healthy individuals to purchase insurance. And a growing number of state officials, many of whom hail from red states, have been admonishing the administration for letting crucial initiatives languish.

Rather than state the obvious—that underserved communities will pay the price for the administration's recklessness—Richard Tate, vice president of public affairs at Cal Wellness was a bit more diplomatic upon announcing the fund, noting, "In today’s rapidly evolving health policy environment, it's more important than ever to illuminate potential health impacts upon underserved communities."

Nor can any discussion about health policy omit the opioid epidemic's unrelenting toll on American communities. A recent study by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that the drug death rate is rising most steeply among blacks, with those between the ages of 45 and 64 among the hardest hit.

Driven by the continued surge in opioid-related deaths, life expectancy in the U.S. dropped for the second year in a row in 2016, marking the first consecutive decline in national life expectancy since 1963.

Accelerated Diversification

When money pours into a specific philanthropic sector, one can generally expect diversification, and the journalism field is no exception. There's a lot of money flowing to all kinds of causes, including gifts that merge journalism with leadership education, and supporting photography's ability "to depict and bring awareness to challenging social issues."

We saw the writing on the wall back in 2014, when, on the heels of the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation's latest foray into health journalism, I asked, "Are we entering a new era of fragmented journalism funding?" Corroborating evidence pointed to gifts earmarked for business reporting and an initiative that incentivized journalists to take religion courses. Of course, there's also the millions in grants that have long flowed for education journalism, including The 74, a new online media site covering K-12 founded a few years ago. 

The sector, in other words, has been diversifying for a while, but the election of Trump, coupled with widespread funder interest in combating inequality, has accelerated this trend.

Also consider the contrasts between the (pre-Trump) Robert Wood Johnson gift and the (post-Trump) Annenberg fund.

The former, which created a health unit at WNYC, came as the U.S. was moving toward expanded insurance coverage thanks to Obamacare. Looking beyond expanded access—a goal foundations worked on for decades—the goal of some key health funders shifted to improving people's health while also bringing down the cost of healthcare.

But as Trump's administration has reminded us, years of philanthropic work can be wiped away with the stroke of a president's pen. Access issues have again become more urgent. To that end, the Annenberg fund will provide journalists with a forum to shine a light on "projects that advance public understanding of health policy for underserved or vulnerable populations, which could include people living in low-income neighborhoods, rural areas, prisons, foster homes, juvenile detention centers or homeless encampments."

A "Catalyst for Change"

The California Wellness Foundation makes grants in a variety of health-related fields and limits its giving to the state of California. The gift to Annenberg, however, finds the foundation zooming out and tackling health inequalities at a far broader level, and many of the findings of this venture will be useful to healthcare professionals outside of California.

In its first round of awards, the fund will provide reporting grants to four to eight journalists or media outlets for investigative or explanatory health reporting projects in California. California-focused projects may be proposed either by journalists at California-based outlets or at national outlets.

(The Center for Health Journalism is based at the Annenberg School for Communications and Journalism.)

The new fund fits squarely with the surging field of "solutions journalism," although, in a slight semantic twist, the fund prefers the phrase "impact journalism." Either way, the hoped-for end result is the same: supporting journalism that "marries powerful narratives, data, and community engagement to serve as a catalyst for change."

The fund complements other anti-inequality initiatives in the USC Annenberg School's larger portfolio, such as its Annenberg Leadership Initiative, which aims to "increase access to cutting-edge journalism education and professional development for people from diverse ethnic and socio-economic backgrounds."

For a closer look at additional funders active in the health journalism space, click here.