While both men make good points, I have to side with Raeburn on this one. The Center really should have at least one experienced science/medical writer on staff. Nonetheless, Westphal is right—prior to his being hired as editor, the Center had already produced five solid reporting projects, some which dealt admirably with matters of science despite being carried out by reporters with no background in the field.
The Center’s self-stated mission is to “create partnerships with traditional and emerging media of all types across California to report on the most vexing health care issues facing the state: quality, access, and cost.” During a six-month pilot phase in 2008 and 2009, the Center produced the following works:
• “Sowing Hope,” a three-part series in the Merced Sun-Star examining the University of California’s plans to build a new medical school in the San Joaquin Valley.
• A two-part series in the Fresno Bee documenting the diabetes epidemic in California’s farming communities and the difficulties residents face in obtaining proper treatment for the disease.
• “Collision in Care,” a three-day, thirteen-story series in the Santa Cruz Sentinel that focused on the local exodus of primary care doctors and its effects on Medicare patients and other vulnerable populations.
• A multi-part series on conflict and competition among local hospitals in the north San Diego County area with the North County Times.
• A series with the Redding Record Searchlight on how the way fires are fought in the surrounding mountains affects the health of local residents.
I haven’t read every part of every series, but the ones on diabetes and fires certainly dealt admirably with their fair share of science. The diabetes series, written by the Fresno Bee’s Barbara Anderson and the Center’s Natalya Shulyakovskaya (who was not one among the permanent hires announced last week) performed an “analysis of state death records and other statistics” in order to determine that:
• Minorities are up to two times as likely as whites to die from diabetes and its complications.
• Less educated residents are more at risk. Almost half of those who die lack high school diplomas.
• The poor - regardless of ethnic background - are more likely to get the disease than other Valley residents.
Likewise, in the Record Searchlight series on fires, the Center’s Jocelyn Weiner (who is also not among the recent permanent hires), handled the scientific connections between fires and health with an laudable blend of aggressive but careful reporting. For instance, headlines such as “Mountain residents have no doubt smoke made the sick,” were balanced by others like, “There’s still much to learn about long-term health effects of last year’s fires.”
Neither Shulyakovskaya nor Weiner appear to have any particular training or long experience with science reporting. Prior to her work for the Center, Shulyakovskaya was an investigative reporter specializing in data analysis at The Orange County Register, according to a bio posted by the Western Knight Center for Specialized Journalism. Weiner spent five years at the Sacramento Bee and “specializes in narrative storytelling about social issues, including health, education, violence and poverty,” according to her blog.
Nonetheless, while a smart reporter with no particular experience in science writing can certainly handle a bit of science reporting, an outlet focused on health care coverage should have a specialist on staff. We shouldn’t doubt the current team’s ability to carry on the strong work during the Center for Health Reporting’s pilot phase, but neither should we doubt that an experienced science journalist would make it even stronger.