“I get a lot of education at those meetings,” she told me. “They are great even if they don’t produce a story for the next day. They give an explanation of the bigger picture and they help you save string.” She’s not much into data, the currency of the realm for journalists today. The Globe, however, has been hammering the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid pretty hard for not releasing data on the use of antipsychotic drugs in nursing homes. Lazar doesn’t do much number crunching herself, and her work shows that you don’t always need zillions of databases to tell a good story.
Her beat includes health and aging, and stories about aging are a particular hit with her audience. Whether readers are looking for the press to tell them there really is a fountain of youth is hard to say, but Lazar told me “any time I write about anti-aging products, I hear from a lot of people.” Anything about Alzheimer’s disease, new research, and regulations about quality of care in nursing facilities or places where older people live are popular. One constraint of the section where aging stories appear is that they be focused more on consumers rather than the science of aging.
Stories about the affordability of health insurance and health care also resonate. That’s hardly surprising in a state whose insurance reforms became the template for federal reform. “When you can do a story that accurately and simply reflects what’s going on, it really touches a nerve,” she said.
How do you make an insurance story simple and interesting? “Honestly, I struggle all the time,” Lazar admitted. “I’ll talk to colleagues and explain it to them. If they look confused and their eyes glaze over, I know I haven’t gotten it yet. Just write the story as if you’re sitting around the bar talking.” More advice, I asked. Start writing the lede and the first graph in an e-mail. “Sometimes that gets you over the log jam.” Don’t be sheepish about asking for more explanations about how things work, and if you don’t understand keep asking. “Try not to get stuck in the weeds with jargon,” Lazar advised. “Get them to explain things in plain English. This is really a challenge.”
Covering Massachusetts health reform is not always easy, especially when public officials don’t want to talk. We talked about that problem, which all journalists have encountered, and specifically about getting information from the Health Connector. “There’s that tension and that’s not surprising,” she said, noting that good reporters try to find ways around government officials who stonewall. That’s a point that’s too often forgotten. Lazar says that she has learned that checking facts with government sources, though, can sometimes save you from making mistakes. That, too, seems old-fashioned in today’s hurried world of getting stuff up or out so fast the facts don’t always matter. Occasionally she e-mails sections of a story to an official at the Connector, asking him to check her facts. “He has saved me from some big mistakes,” she said.
What’s one health topic Lazar hasn’t tackled much “Medicare,” she answered without hesitating. “Every time I do a Medicare story my knees tremble.” Covering Medicare falls into a gray area, Lazar noted. Is it a Washington story or a local story? Sometimes news organizations are not so sure. All this points to the need for local reporters to pay more attention to Medicare. Campaign Desk hopes that Lazar will find the subject a little less daunting and create new ways to cover Medicare, leading the way for others on the beat.