Bluefield Daily Telegraph, Bluefield, WV

Columns

September 5, 2013

Healthier state: Press members, community groups collaborate on issues

— — Almost every day, we’re hearing about a new threat to our nation’s collective health. Heart disease, obesity, diabetes, sexually-transmitted diseases, poor nutrition and other problems have created a health hazard minefield millions of us traverse every day. Being a diabetic myself, I have to avoid certain foods, remember to take my medication, and get enough exercise to keep my blood sugar level and cholesterol at bay.

The Bluefield Daily Telegraph and other publications have health news and features all the time, but we cannot help but wonder if there is more we can do. How could we give the public more information, not only about health problems, but what they could do about those problems?

A couple of weeks ago, members of the West Virginia Press Association met with members of community health organizations at the Telegraph to talk about how to better reach the public about health issues. We discussed ideas such as getting outside writers to do special features for local newspapers and generating ideas about people who are addressing health issues.

Well, we soon decided that we wanted newspapers to do their own health stories rather than take them from outside sources. However, organizations working to improve public health could introduce newspapers to people who are making a difference.

Kate Long, a writing coach who compiled a series of health stories, told us about a mother who organized a children’s soccer league to give kids more exercise. Other stories could include topics like severe diabetics who changed their lifestyles and got their conditions under control and people who beat their obesity and lowered their risk for heart disease. The trick is to make the connection between journalists and these success stories.

One point I and others made was that it is often difficult to get attention for these positive stories. Yes, the public often laments a lack of positive news, but human instinct just as often gravitates to the negative news. For example, we were shown a front page featuring a story about children enjoying a new exercise program. Above that story was another item about some arrests in Logan County. My eyes immediately focused on the crime news.

However, we realized negative news could serve as a hook bringing readers to stories about how they could make a difference in their lives and the lives of others. For instance, I recently covered a story about two small McDowell County children who were living in filthy conditions. Becky Brown of the Children’s Home Society told us about what a difficult time her agency has when it comes to finding foster homes for children living in those very types of circumstances. Here was a chance to use a tragic story to illustrate a need in the community.

Naturally, we face a lot of challenges. Newspaper staffs are not as large as they used to be, so individual reporters must do more. Getting ideas from health and human service organizations helps save a lot of time.

Another problem we have to battle is apathy. Greg Puckett, of Community Connections here in Mercer County, said there is a prevailing notion among area residents about what can and cannot be done and what will and will not be done to improve the quality of life.

Well, life can be changed if you are willing to make changes. Inaction is easy and inaction requires effort, but you cannot make changes if you assume nothing can be done and choose the easy path of doing nothing. When it comes to poor health, individuals make changes. They change their eating habits, they exercise more, they stop smoking, and they volunteer to help people who cannot make changes on their own. The media does its part by providing the information, and with hope the inspiration, needed to make life better.

I’m sure we could make a difference with all the health issues hitting the public today. All the problems might seem insurmountable, but individuals can pick a cause and work to make a difference, even if that cause is as small as helping one family eat better or getting children to step away from their video games and exercise more.

 If things like this happen, there will be more positive news about people making a difference; in turn, these stories could inspire more people to follow their examples. Will doing these stories be quick and easy? I do a calculation based on years of experience and hear the words “fat chance” and “dream on,” but when I ask if the effort will be worth it, I hear the word, “yes.”

Yes, people could be healthier if they could learn how to be healthier. Writing those stories will be the first move. The second move will depend on the readers.

Greg Jordan is senior reporter at the Daily Telegraph. Contact him at gjordan@bdtonline.com.

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