Mary Meehan: Real lives are at stake in rural areas and real journalism can help affect change

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Hey there Blue State folks! Those of us out here in the rest of the country are glad that over the last year you’ve shown an interest in making our acquaintance.

Recently, several prominent media organizations took it a step further, announcing support for local journalists. The Nieman Foundation recently announced the Abrams Nieman Fellowship in Local Investigative Journalism. These fellows will join the traditional fellow class plus get additional support and mentoring upon returning to their local newsrooms.

ProPublica meanwhile determined the seven newsrooms in their new Local Reporting Network focused on investigative reporting. The GroundTruth Project will also soon reveal a new round of reporters placed in smaller markets after announcing earlier a collaboration with three newsrooms in Kentucky and West Virginia. There is definitely an interest among journalists. Nearly 250 newsrooms applied to ProPublica, and an equal number of individuals applied to GroundTruth.

My prediction is that this effort will continue to grow as journalists from different places join in the common goal of doing work that matters in the day-to-day lives of people.

My hope is that this trend will evolve into a sustained exploration of poor health in rural areas, particularly Appalachia.

Why? Rural health is in a crisis. It’s certainly been reported that people are dying in record numbers from drug overdose. But it’s less widely known that 100 of the 220 counties at highest risk for HIV and Hepatitis-C infection are in Kentucky, West Virginia, and Ohio.

Drug abuse is creating other health challenges such as endocarditis, a heart infection that requires long and expensive treatment and which can be spread by reusing syringes. Or neonatal abstinence syndrome, which impacts at least 5 percent of all babies born in West Virginia.

This is impacting communities where people are actually living shorter lives than they used to.

These problems don’t stop at state borders. The burden of caring for folks, or letting them die, should be a critical part of the national discourse, not simply a health policy talking point.

Ideally, national and regional news organizations will examine how they use their most valuable resource, people. The endless tick-tock and vote counting on health care policy is a good example. In way too many stories, the idea that tens of millions of people could lose health insurance amounted to a throwaway line. Those are real people, people like my sister, who will literally die if she can’t afford her medicine.

Sustained political will is necessary to make a tangible change and that begins with dedicated journalists laying bare the problems, but also highlighting the good work people are doing to change their communities for the better.

Highlighting that work can help it be replicated in other places and, over time, that could mean the horrifying health trends evident in places like Kentucky, where I live, will start to change.

Mary Meehan covers healthcare for Ohio Valley Resource. This column originally appeared at

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