A reporting collaborative takes on a California health plague

Working together, local journalists tackle valley fever and produce a laurel-worthy effort

A little more than a month ago, The New York Times came forth with a story describing how a dangerous disease called valley fever is infecting thousands of people throughout the Southwest, especially in California and Arizona. It’s an airborne fungal disease—“a silent epidemic,” the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) calls it—and it has the potential to make people really sick, or even kill them when spores carried by the wind lodge in victims’ lungs. In reply to the Times article, science writer Maryn McKenna tweeted: “where did NYT get idea to do long piece on valley fever? Maybe never-mentioned YEAR-LONG project by NINE CA outlets?”

The project McKenna referred to was a unique collaborative effort organized by Reporting on Health, a website for journalists and the public whose principal funder is The California Endowment. ReportingonHealth.org and eight local news outlets—The Bakersfield Californian, the Merced Sun-Star, Radio Bilingue, The Record in Stockton, Valley Public Radio in Fresno and Bakersfield, Vida en el Valle in Fresno andVoice of OC in Santa Ana—have cooperated since last September to bring attention to a little-publicized disease that has not attracted big research money to find a cure, or even a vaccine. Let’s face it: No one does the walk for valley fever. (Officially, the collaborative is “an initiative of The California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowships at the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism.”)

If the California coverage did inspire the Times article—or a segment on PBS’ Newshour a week earlier—that’s fine with Reporting on Health editor-in-chief Michelle Levander, who told me, “We still want to break news, but if The New York Times and the BBC comes along and gives it a new look and other attention, I’m thrilled.” She said when Reporting on Health heard the Times was working on a story, they called the reporter and offered to help. One reporter from the collaborative continued the story by producing two NPR segments. Cooperation? Not exactly what most of us were taught in J-School, but then these times they are a-changing.

“These outlets coming together gave us a realization we can do more together,” Levander explained. And acting together, they have accomplished quite a lot. For bringing attention to a serious, previously hidden disease, the Reporting on Health collaborative deserves a CJR laurel.

The continuing series, called “Just One Breath,” got the attention of the folks at the CDC, which issued a report last spring confirming one of the collaborative’s findings—that cases of valley fever had risen to alarming levels over the last decade. The CDC, which had barely paid attention to valley fever, asked Reporting on Health to provide content for its webpage.

California’s politicians have caught the interest in valley fever, too. Rep. Kevin McCarthy, a Bakersfield Republican who is also the House majority whip, has formed a Congressional task force to study the problem. State senators have formed a select committee on valley fever to do the same, which may lead to legislation for tracking the disease. State officials took notice when reporters broke the news last fall that valley fever was rampant in the state’s prisons, particularly in the San Joaquin Valley, costing taxpayers some $25 million a year to treat sick inmates while punishing them twice—once for the crimes they committed and once for a life sentence of serious illness. The federal receiver who oversees the state’s prison system ordered the state to stop sending at-risk prisoners to prisons in the valley.

So far there have been about 50 stories and blog posts in the series, often featuring double and triple bylines from reporters at the media outlets. These pieces have discussed health aspects of the disease, its misdiagnosis, harmful side effects from medicines that are available to treat the fever, its prevalence and causes, government inaction, and costs to communities and families.

What’s next? Levander says the project will continue “as long as there’s a story to tell. We have to wait and see what the end is.” Much of that will depend, of course, on government actions and what communities in California’s Central Valley do to bring attention to a serious threat to their health. What’s great about this effort is that by combining forces, regional news outlets can stay on the case.

As Levander puts it, “The project demonstrates the power and potential of joint coverage by regional media.” And that’s so refreshing in this era of quick hits and the endless march to capture audience attention faster than the next guy. The press has certainly captured the attention of communities in California’s Central Valley for whom the disease matters. That’s what good journalism still is.

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Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for The Second Opinion, CJR's healthcare desk, which is part of our United States Project on the coverage of politics and policy. She also blogs for Health News Review. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman. Tags: , , ,