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Spotlight on rural health

In July, the Association of Health Care Journalists will host a rural health journalism workshop in Chattanooga, and the group asked me to write a column for the program. I figured I'd share an excerpt for this week's newsletter:

In the five years that I've worked at the paper, I've covered an array of rural health care issues, ranging from the ravages of the opioid epidemic to rural hospital closures to vaccine hesitancy. In the process, I've learned that just as the health care sector must constantly innovate and reevaluate how to reach underserved communities, so must the media.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press used to have teams of journalists charged with covering the surrounding rural counties, but due to industry changes and a need to find a sustainable business model for local news, we now have one reporter who covers the rural Tennessee counties and another who covers North Georgia.

While this is significantly more media attention than many counties in the United States receive, it's still a vast reduction from years past. Not only is that unfortunate for the citizens, it makes it much more difficult for us reporters to cultivate sources and build trust among those outlying communities.

I may live only 50 miles away, but I'm often seen as an outsider when working on stories that take me into our rural areas. The COVID-19 vaccine rollout further highlighted just how disconnected many rural residents feel from both the health care system and the media.

I've learned that even at the local paper, we must be intentional about covering these populations, slowing down the reporting process so that we can truly listen to our sources and not just "showing up" when there's a tragic breaking news event.

Sometimes it's just the little things, such as knowing the names of the other small municipalities down the road or the history of an area that shows a reporter is serious about doing these stories justice.

I don't have all the answers, which is why these types of workshops are so important, but I do believe that there are many lessons for us journalists to learn from the health care professionals sharing ways that they've been able to connect with rural residents.

Stay healthy

Elizabeth Fite, health care reporter,