Ten months into Iowa Public Radio’s expanded commitment to health reporting, the pandemic hit. Natalie Krebs, the station’s recently hired health reporter, became the center point in coordinating coverage of the crisis. Her role has been crucial to tracking the pandemic’s trajectory, as well as ensuring that stories about health access, disparate impacts on communities, and data and expert perspectives are shared with listeners.
Since 2019, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has supported the station’s growing commitment to investigating, informing, and creating public conversation around pressing health issues. With a focus on improving children’s and families’ well-being, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation has viewed its grants to Iowa Public Radio (IPR) as a way of furthering independent news coverage of health issues and awareness of broad factors that influence health.
“We know that children live in families and families live in communities,” said Denise Swartz, Senior Program Officer at Mid-Iowa Health Foundation. “This grant focuses on elevating understanding of health and what contributes to health, knowing that these issues impact the environments in which our children are growing up and their lifelong health and well-being.”
“We want to help Iowans become better informed about important issues that affect their lives and, really, anything health care related is going to affect all of us in one way or another,” said Michael Leland, IPR’s News Director. “The reporting that Natalie has been able to do in this area has been essential to fulfilling our mission of informing people in Iowa.”
After learning about how a small foundation in a different region sponsored a reporter to focus on mental health issues, Mid-Iowa Health Foundation approached IPR with the idea of doing the same locally with a focus on health. The Foundation was honing its focus on the social determinants of health, such as access to housing, food, and mental health care, and recognized the need to build community knowledge of how these factors influence health outcomes.
IPR also was interested in expanding its health coverage as issues like Medicaid privatization and access to care in rural communities were coming to the forefront. While all reporters cover a range of pressing issues, most have beats, or topic areas, they focus on. The station already had reporters focused on beats with education, state government, and agriculture.
IPR established clear guidelines for how to receive the grant in a way that ensured independence in its reporting but with a clear focus on stories looking at all factors influencing health and well-being. Krebs joined IPR in its newly created health reporter position with a background in covering stories on immigration and other human rights issues, with an interest in how policies and systems impact health.
“I think health care and access to health care is a human rights issue,” she said.
Each year, Krebs is responsible for producing 15-20 stories, each with an on-air broadcast and a web version. She also creates spot news segments, appears on talk shows to discuss her reporting, and contributes to the station’s Hear First podcast. With the health reporter position, IPR also has been able to contribute stories for regional and national stations, including National Public Radio and Kaiser Health News. The station joined the reporting collaborative Side Effects, which shares health stories among six Midwest stations.
With so many issues connecting to health, Krebs initially dove into stories about the children’s mental health system and women’s lack of access to health care in rural areas. Just as she was gaining a deeper knowledge of health-related issues and building relationships with sources, the pandemic hit.
“I knew when the pandemic hit that I was going to be leading in covering it,” she said.
Krebs began tracking COVID rate numbers and following the pandemic’s progression through each wave, while also examining how the pandemic was affecting Iowans and the state’s health care infrastructure. She worked with other IPR reporters to talk about the impact of the pandemic on places such as schools, prisons, and immigrant communities.
“We had no idea the pandemic was on our doorsteps when the position began,” said Swartz of Mid-Iowa Health, “so the grant was about raising up health issues and helping Iowans be aware of health conditions in our community. When the pandemic hit, it became critical to get information out and to understand and make those connections between health issues and issues with housing, workforce, and in other areas.”
HealthConnect Fellow Alejandro Murguia-Ortiz, Community Organizer with Iowa Migrant Movement for Justice, has noticed how other reporters at the station have also elevated health issues throughout the pandemic, especially the reporter dedicated to covering issues in Latinx communities.
“It was unavoidable that the large share of stories would be tied directly, or indirectly, to the COVID outbreak,” they said. “This put a spotlight on how various barriers and lack of access to health care for immigrant and Latino communities contribute extensively to the overall well-being of our communities.”
IPR’s health reporting has shifted recently to how the pandemic has exacerbated other issues that impact well-being, including mental health and child care, and its lasting effect on health systems.
“We’re able to give people a good picture of the progression of the pandemic and help them make decisions about their own health and safety,” said Leland. “People who have been listening to us regularly have a better sense of what is going on and what the situation is now and how it’s affecting people.”
Murguia-Ortiz says media plays an important role in helping a broader audience understand what is happening, including the specific ways in which particular communities have been impacted by the pandemic. “The media paints the picture, to some extent, of what even the makeup of our communities is,” they said. “Having somebody who can actually talk to our communities, regardless of issues, allows that context to be shared.”
HealthConnect Fellow Lina Tucker Reinders, Executive Director of Iowa Public Health Association, says she appreciates the stories IPR and National Public Radio are telling about people impacted by COVID. While she believes even more education is needed on the role and responsibilities of public health and how its work is broader than just the pandemic, she believes media is playing a valuable part in that effort.
“Public health is about systems change and using health disparities data and social justice tools for building more equitable societies. I think those concepts should be more pervasive in our conversations,” she said. “That’s the role I see the media playing as they help set the tone for daily conversations.”
As Krebs reflects on what she’s learned about health as an IPR reporter, she shares: “How important health care is for everyone that crosses into every single beat. It was interesting to see during the pandemic how visible public health became. The pandemic made it really literal. Everyone was affected by health around us.”
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