In Depth

Taking Stock of 10 Years of AHCJ

Strangers With a Common Idea Started It All

Writers, reporters and other media members of the Association of Health Care Journalists will gather for their annual conference in Washington starting March 27, marking the 10th anniversary of the organization’s creation.

“Duncan Moore and I both had the same idea to form an association of health care journalists,” said Melinda Voss, the group’s first executive director. J. Duncan Moore was a reporter for Modern Healthcare magazine, and Ms. Voss was then a health reporter for the Des Moines Register.

“We did not know each other, but we both went to a conference in Bloomington, Ind., in March of 1997,” Ms. Voss said of the conference, which was sponsored by the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation.

“Duncan got up and said, ‘I think we should form an organization,’ and as soon as he said that, it was, ‘Hooray, let’s go for it!’ So he and I got together and started recruiting people to go to a meeting in September in Chicago to talk about forming the association.”

One of the first tenets in forming the association was deciding what kind of group they were going to be. They chose to be an independent, nonprofit organization dedicated to advancing public understanding of health care issues, writing a mission statement that dedicated their efforts “…to improve the quality, accuracy and visibility of health care reporting, writing and editing.”

“The meeting was at Modern Healthcare headquarters. We attracted some top-flight journalists and we hammered out a mission statement, a name and a few other things to get us going. I volunteered to be the unpaid coordinator and Duncan was elected the president,” said Ms. Voss.

Ms. Voss was charged with getting the association going. Then a student at the University of Minnesota, pursuing her master’s degree in public health, she asked for help from the interim director at the University of Minnesota School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “Albert Tims gave me a space and computer and a long-distance telephone account,” she said. “I didn’t know what to do. I just stumbled my way through.”


Doing It on the Side
The AHCJ incorporated in 1998.

“It took about two years for us to attain nonprofit status and to get together programs and plans to recruit members. We were all doing this work without pay while we were all busily engaged in a full-time job,” said Ms. Voss.

A $50,000 start-up grant from the Robert Wood Johnston Foundation gave them a major boost. “By 1999, we got some funding and we actually got off the ground. By January 2000, we were ready to put on a national conference,” said Ms. Voss.

Although they were officially ready, there was still a lot to be done for a conference. “We had no money raised and no program,” Ms. Voss said. “The board met and within five months we had raised $100,000 and put together a sterling program that included then-Vice President Al Gore, who was running for president at the time.”

Getting Mr. Gore as a speaker was a major coup that cast a giant spotlight on the AHCJ. The inaugural national conference was held in Chicago in 2000, featuring several workshop sessions and Mr. Gore’s address.

“That first conference set the stage and set the tone for the kind of organization that it was going to be, which was credible, helpful, providing journalists the information, skills, the knowledge that they need to do a better job covering the health beat,” Ms. Voss said.


Tracing Evolution
As part of the 10th-anniversary conference, on March 27, part of the program will be dedicated to looking back at where health care journalism was when the idea of the association was born. “The Founders Roundtable: The Evolution and Future of Health Journalism” will be a forum for looking back as well as looking into the future for health care media. Ms. Voss and Mr. Moore will take part in that roundtable, along with current Kaiser Family Foundation executive director Penny Duckham; independent journalists Irene Wielawski and Andrew Holtz; Joanne Silberner, health policy correspondent for National Public Radio. Mark Taylor will moderate.
Among the accomplishments the AHCJ has to its credit is the first reporter’s resource guide, “Covering the Quality of Health Care,” published and distributed in 2002. Then, in 2004, AHCJ led the charge—with 20 other journalism organizations—to put an end to video news releases from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services because they appeared to many to be authentic news reports.

“I think for many, many years, health was considered a less-than-important topic to cover at many newspapers and news outlets. They thought it was important, but not that important to give it a lot of prestige in the newsroom,” said Ms. Voss.

With the help of the association, health care journalism has gained some respect. “For many reporters it was a pass-through beat, something they would do for a little while and then move on to something else. Also, covering health and health care is a lot more challenging than a lot of other beats, like city hall or covering education, because there are a lot of things people don’t know,” she said.

In 2006, the AHCJ published a second major reporter’s resource guide, “Covering Health in a Multicultural Society.” The guide provides information that anyone covering the health beat would need to know.

As Ms. Voss pointed out, many media members are not medical experts. “They don’t know the difference between relative risk and absolute risk. That’s an important thing to know if you’re a health journalist. There was no way for them to know or even know that they needed to know. It was all the more reason why some reporters would do the beat and then give up on it.”

It is also why the AHCJ is such an important organization for writers, reporters and news pros assigned to health stories.