Health Literacy Month reflects why Kentucky Health News exists; attention must be paid to health issues, including drug abuse

By Al Cross
Editor and Publisher, Kentucky Health News

Kentucky Heath News is in the business of health literacy: helping Kentuckians understand how to maintain and improve their health, and understanding the health-care system. But somehow we failed to notice that October is Health Literacy Month. Maybe we’ve been too busy with our work. But that prompts me to write a bit about KHN, why it exists, and what we hope you get from it.

The idea was conceived at a Kentucky Chamber of Commerce meeting about nine years ago. I sat down at a table with Robert Slaton, a health-care consultant and former state health commissioner, and Susan Zepeda, then the president and CEO of the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky. Robert said, “Al, you ought to ask Susan for some money.”

The obvious follow-up question was “What for?” and I had the answer. For five years, I had been publishing The Rural Blog, a daily digest of events, trends, issues and journalism from and about rural America, as director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky. The institute’s mission is to help rural journalists define the public agenda in their communities, through strong reporting and commentary, especially on broad issues that have local impact but few if any good, local sources.

From the time Al Smith and others conceived it, one of the institute’s main issues has been health, because it is a chronic problem in rural areas, and especially in Kentucky, where people’s overall health status is one of the worst in the nation. So, when Robert made his suggestion, I already had the answer to the “For what?” question: a service that would help Kentucky news media help their audiences live healthier lives and understand the health-care system.

The foundation got us started, and has been increasingly supportive of our work, allowing us to have a reporter, former nurse Melissa Patrick, who works 25 hours a week doing original stories and excerpting others. Many in news outlets have also supported our work by publishing it, but we wish more did so. Our stories appear with some regularity in many newspapers, but not in most, despite our weekly emails to every paper in the state (and to the Kentucky Association of Broadcasters).

This is understandable to those of us who have worked at small-town radio stations or have been editors of rural newspapers, which exist to provide local news and information. Most Kentucky Health News stories aren’t local, but they do touch on issues that matter to local audiences. Some newspapers pick up on such stories and use them as the basis for their own stories or editorials.

Many times, though, certain information about local health doesn’t reflect well on the community that the newspaper serves, so it’s not reported. In community journalism, there is often a reluctance to make an effort to report such news; there may be plenty of bad news already, and the role of community cheerleader is a long-established one in rural journalism.

That used to show up in Kentucky papers’ treatment of the annual County Health Rankings, which rank every county in every state on its health outcomes and the factors that affect those outcomes. For the first few years that the rankings were issued, the better your county’s ranking, the more likely you were to read about in your local Kentucky newspaper. And the worse your county’s ranking, the less likely you were to read about it. The papers were declining to print bad news.

But that has changed. A couple of years ago, we found that there was no longer any correlation between a county’s ranking and its publication in the local newspaper. A poor ranking was just as likely to be published as a good one. This is just one example, and the trend varies from year to year, but we’d like to think that our work has made many rural journalists in Kentucky realize that health is an important local issue that needs attention.

Now we hope they realize something else needs attention: the epidemic of substance abuse that is plaguing Kentucky, and the means of fighting it, as individuals and communities. This is primarily a health issue, but in rural news media is usually presented as a criminal-justice issue. The lack of coverage of it as a health issue is an obstacle to solving the problem, according to research by Oak Ridge Associated Universities.

To reduce that obstacle, ORAU and the institute will hold Covering Substance Abuse and Recovery: A Workshop for Journalists, in Ashland, Ky., on Nov. 15. Journalists from weekly and daily papers will join health experts and public officials to explore the subject, and we hope for a good turnout that will make some headway in rural communities. Space is limited; the registration fee until Nov. 1 is $50; it will be $60 through Nov 8, when registration will close. Get details and register here.

This probably isn’t your cup of tea; it’s a difficult subject, but attention must be paid. That’s one of the best-known lines from the play Death of a Salesman: “He’s not the finest character that ever lived. But he’s a human being, and a terrible thing is happening to him. So attention must be paid. He’s not to be allowed to fall into his grave like an old dog. Attention, attention must finally be paid to such a person.” Let’s pay attention to these people and their problem, and help solve it.