Saturday, August 12, 2017

Kentucky newspapers showed much more interest this year in the County Health Rankings, no matter if they were good or bad

By Elizabeth Spencer and Al Cross
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues
University of Kentucky School of Journalism and Media

More Kentucky newspapers are writing about their communities' health, even when it presents an unfavorable picture, when measured by coverage of the annual County Health Rankings.

Kentucky papers reported on the rankings at a record rate in 2017, according to an analysis by researchers at the University of Kentucky's Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues.

The researchers examined 106 of the approximately 140 paid-circulation newspapers outside Kentucky's three major urban areas, covering 115 of the state's 120 counties. They found that 31 papers in 30 counties published 36 separate articles about the rankings in the five weeks after the rankings were released in late March. That was many more than in previous years.

Williamsburg Mayor Roddy Harrison led a one-mile walk to
promote health. (Photo: Corbin Times-Tribune, Angela Turner)
Not only did more papers report the rankings, there was no discernible difference in the likelihood of publication in healthier or unhealthier counties, unlike most previous years.

In the first few years of the rankings, residents of highly ranked Kentucky counties were much more likely to read that news in their local paper, while such stories in poorly ranked counties were scarce.

That pattern disappeared two years ago, but recurred in 2016, when relatively few Kentucky papers published stories about the rankings. This year, with a much larger sample, there was a strikingly even distribution of stories, with as many in poorly ranked counties as highly ranked ones.

That indicates that newspapers in lower-ranked counties have seen a need to inform citizens about their communities' lower health status, and to at least implicitly suggest a need for their readers to consider their health behaviors.

The County Health Rankings and Roadmaps is a program at the University of Wisconsin Population Health Institute and funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation. The rankings are based on health outcomes, such as statistics on disease and death; factors that affect health, such as health behaviors like smoking, as well as social and economic factors; and local policies and programs, such as clinical care and the physical environment.

The rankings compare counties within each state, not nationwide. Communities can use the comparisons to identify problems that individuals, community organizations and local leaders need to address.

Research details

The main source for the latest research was the archive of printed Kentucky newspapers at the University of Kentucky. Papers unavailable in the archive were searched online. Not all Kentucky papers could be searched, because some newspapers do not have websites. Not all the published articles may have been found, because some papers that have websites do not place news articles there, and some that do greatly limit their online publication of stories that are not locally generated.

Because the Institute for Rural Journalism focuses on rural news media, the study did not include newspapers in Kentucky's five most urban counties: Jefferson, Fayette, Kenton, Campbell and Boone.

Researchers found 36 County Health Rankings articles in 31 newspapers. In one county, two papers had a CHR story. In three counties, the newspaper published more than one story, including an editorial in The News-Enterprise of Elizabethtown.

The Corbin Times-Tribune, which covers Whitley and Knox counties and part of southern Laurel County, did a three-part series on the rankings, one of which promoted a community walk held by the Whitley County Health Department. The county ranked 107th in health outcomes and 87th in health factors. Knox County ranked 102nd and 115th, respectively.

Analysis of the coverage included whether or not the paper framed the story with a county-specific localization of the data. Of the total sample, 89 percent included some form of localization, but two of those stories were localized only by the headline. Thirty-one percent of the stories included a comment from a local authority on health factors and outcomes. Only 11 percent quoted a community member.

Newspaper staff members wrote 69 percent of the stories. One-fourth of the coverage used the Kentucky Health News story, which focused on the rise in Kentucky's premature death rate. KHN is an independent news service of the Institute for Rural Journalism, funded by the Foundation for a Healthy Kentucky.

Overall, 34 percent of the sampled papers published a story about the County Health Rankings. The publication frequency for 2016 rate was only 7.6 percent.

In 2015, the publication rate was 24.53 percent, and in 2014, it was 18.52 percent. In those years, Rural Journalism researchers examined one-third of all papers in the state, drawing a random sample from those available in the printed archive.

The research also examined whether the stories described the rankings and the county's health status in a positive or negative light. Not surprisingly, 16 had a positive framing, 16 had a negative framing, and 11 percent (four) of the stories offered a more balanced perspective. While some stories reflected celebration of an improved ranking, there are still serious health issues in every county.

Because the differences among closely ranked counties are small, maps with the rankings separate them into quartiles, or fourths. An online interactive map gives the individual rankings, and clicking on a county gives a detailed breakdown of the factors contributing to the rankings, as well as its recent trend.

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