New York City healthcare was ignored. Now it’s the only story in town

In early January, the Tow Center for Digital Journalism published my report, “Media Mecca or News Desert?” Covering Local News in New York City,” which examined how citywide and hyperlocal news organizations allocate diminishing editorial resources, and the challenges they face filling gaps in coverage. Less than two months later, Covid-19 hit. Since then, nearly every aspect of the newsroom dynamics I had described, like so much of our lives, has been transformed.

In a new piece examining the pandemic-era changes to New York City’s local news media, “The Virus, the news, and New York City,” I reinterviewed workers from these newsrooms. And there is one takeaway from the original report that still feels distressingly relevant. Due to limited resources, health and healthcare issues have been undercovered for years in New York City. In the last two months, newsrooms have had to get up to speed quickly on a complicated system in order to report on one of the most significant stories of our lifetime.

A consensus emerged from the interviews for my previous report that health and healthcare issues were going underreported. Particularly lacking, several newsroom leaders noted, was coverage of a seemingly niche topic: the municipal hospital system.

“If I had an extra reporter, I would have somebody covering health and the municipal hospital system,” Joel Siegel, managing editor at TV network NY1 News, told me in 2019. “It bothers me as a New Yorker, and as a journalist, that that system is not covered.” Errol Louis, NY1 political journalist, agreed, telling me that the public hospital system, “is basically not covered, even though it is essentially bankrupt.”

Several months after these interviews, the city announced that NYC Health + Hospitals, the agency that operates the hospitals, had managed to reverse course financially, closing the fiscal year with a budget surplus. Our limited research found no coverage of this development in any of the English-language news outlets we surveyed.

Now, every reporter has become a health reporter. “New York used to be a city filled with stories,” began a recent New York Times Magazine piece about the city’s municipal hospital system. “Today it is a city with a single story: its hospitals.”

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As part of my new follow-up report, I asked the same newsrooms—and a few additional ones—how reporters are quickly readjusting to cover a beat that has been neglected for years. This lack of coverage has resulted, in many cases, they told me, in a significant dearth of institutional knowledge and sources. In addition to being at the center of the initial crisis phase of the epidemic, Health + Hospitals has been charged by Mayor de Blasio with leading the city’s contact tracing program—a duty traditionally performed by the city’s health department. The agency will thus likely remain at the forefront of recovery efforts for some time.

Jere Hester, editor-in-chief of The City, an online nonprofit news outlet that launched in the spring of 2019, identified the convergence of public health with other beats when we spoke for the previous report. “We know from what’s happened in public housing that public housing is not just a housing beat,” he told me in 2019. “Thanks to lead, mold, and other issues,” he said, “it’s a health beat.” The major shift now, he said, in light of the Covid-19 crisis, “is that every beat we have is essentially now a health beat.”

Ben Max, executive editor of the Gotham Gazette, a digital nonprofit news outlet, acknowledged that “it’s definitely been a challenge to quickly develop sourcing and our institutional knowledge about what the system is, how it works, what it looks like.” Public health in New York is a complicated constellation of public, private, and city-run healthcare facilities, according to Max. “I think first and foremost some of what would be helpful to people, and that we’re working on, is to produce a good, solid explainer on what the city’s hospital landscape even looks like, and what the city’s public hospital system looks like within that,” he said.

Some outlets, like public radio station WNYC and its digital news outlet Gothamist, have reassigned reporters who formerly covered health issues, taking advantage of their expertise and contacts. The City, Hester said, has built on its  previous coverage on issues related to the public health system, such as Medicaid, nursing homes, and the mental illness and homeless crises But, he said, “I think, for our team and probably many reporters across the city, we’ve had to become very quick studies on some of the intricacies of the system.”

David Brand, Managing Editor of the Queens Daily Eagle, agreed, noting that he’s spent a lot of time in recent weeks reaching out to friends and potential sources who might be able to help him “get up to speed about just what these places look like.”

“I think people are more familiar with the jails,” he said. “We’re familiar with the courthouses. But I think there is a lack of institutional knowledge about the hospitals.” Brand said he’s had success reaching out to people on Facebook, acquaintances and strangers alike, who have taught him more about the hospital system.

For many of the ethnic media outlets, those contacts and sources within the hospital system were already known to them in their communities. “It’s not via official channels,” according to Rong Xiaoqing, a journalist in the New York bureau of the Chinese-language newspaper Sing Tao Daily, who said ethnic media outlets often don’t have their phone calls to high-ranking officials returned quickly. Rong said the paper has longstanding relationships with organizations and clubs devoted to Chinese medical personnel. “Take the Chinese Cardiologists’ Club, or something like that,” she said. “Maybe we covered their anniversary celebration and took some photos and they were happy [with the coverage]. Now, when we want to locate some doctors in a particular hospital, we go to them and say, ‘Can you help us find someone?’ and they help us.”

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Garry Pierre-Pierre, editor-in-chief of Brooklyn’s Haitian Times, said that, thanks to the overrepresentation of Haitians in the healthcare system and his longstanding ties in the community, his paper hadn’t struggled at all to find sources. Javier Castaño, founder and editor of publication Queens Latino, and Roberto Lacayo, news director of the TV network NY1 Noticias, both said they had been able to find sources within Queens hospitals from among their Spanish-speaking communities relatively easily.

As the initial phase of the crisis has passed, some news outlets are beginning to produce stories that look past current conditions to dive into the history of the city’s public hospital system. “Decades of Shrinking Hospital Capacity ‘Spelled Disaster’ for New York’s COVID Response,” read an April 15 City Limits headline.The same day, the New York Times Magazine published a photo essay from inside the public hospitals by Philip Montgomery, with reporting by Jonathan Mahler on the origins of the city’s public hospital system, the challenges it has faced in recent decades, and the current unprecedented crisis.

“I felt it was an important and powerful thing to remind people about that history, and the mission and role [the hospital system] has had,” Mahler told me. “They have been embattled, but have kept up the fight.”

Montgomery and Mahler received extensive access to the physical facilities and senior leadership at NYC Health + Hospitals for their article. But access to hospitals and healthcare workers across the private hospital system has been more limited. Politico NY reported that “Mount Sinai Health System and NYU Langone Health are among the private hospitals that warned workers against voicing their concerns about the nightmarish scenes playing out in emergency rooms across the city.” Other news outlets reported versions of the same, citing several hospital systems that had sent memos to staff ordering them not to speak to the media about conditions inside their hospitals.

Some journalists wondered about the impact of the years the hospital system spent relatively free of sustained media scrutiny. Limitations on hospital coverage are often related to HIPAA privacy rules, Hester noted. “They have a legal excuse, in a lot of cases, not to deal with the press,” he said. But “we’ve had a huge contraction of the press as well, and there hasn’t been anywhere near the same day-in and day-out coverage of the system and other health issues.”

Last week, the Times published a behind-the-scenes account of the events leading up to de Blasio’s controversial decision to move the city’s Covid-19 contact-tracing program to NYC Health + Hospitals. The article, which featured four bylines and quoted from damning, previously unpublished emails written by the agency’s director, was the kind of deeply-reported exposé rarely seen in recent years about the agency. While it may have preferred the more forgiving coverage of the Times Magazine photo-essay piece, the municipal hospital system should have one clear takeaway from the publication of both articles: the agency is now being treated as a significant beat, and has the full attention of the country’s leading newspaper, as well as the rest of the city’s local news outlets.

Read the full report here

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Sara Rafsky is a senior research fellow at Columbia Journalism School’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism. She is a writer and researcher who has worked at the intersection of journalism, press freedom, human rights, and documentary film in the US and Latin America.

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