In Depth

California Newsreel, Vital Pictures & PBS: ‘Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?'

The Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Awards inform the industry and the public about television and radio journalism that has made an important contribution to communities and to the nation. Among the winners in the category of documentary film is PBS’ “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?,” a seven-part, four-hour series that investigates how health disorders in the United States are related to income and race.

“The whole idea for many of us is to help Americans begin to scrutinize many of the myths and misconceptions that we have about health and, more basically, about race and class. Our race and class structures shape our health,” said Larry Adelman, series creator and executive producer.

“Unnatural Causes” was conceived by California Newsreel with Vital Pictures as part of a larger impact campaign in association with leading public health, policy and community-based organizations.

“The conventional understanding of health is that we equate prevention with making the right choices, and seeing that the future of health lies in better technologies, especially with drugs,” Mr. Andelman said. “It’s not that those things don’t matter, but why is it that we’re not talking about the ways in which inequality is growing in this country and has shaped health even more than diets, smoking and exercise.”

The popular conception links health to medical care, lifestyles and genes, but “Unnatural Causes” erodes that assumption. “Our health is not just a product of the conventional big three—our meds, our genes and our behavior—but it’s also deeply influenced by the conditions in which we live,” said Mr. Adelman. “The neighborhoods in which we live, the schools we attend, the jobs we have, the money we make, the wealth we enjoy. If we can’t improve those factors, then all our other efforts to improve the nation’s health are ultimately going to fall flat.”

The film received its widest exposure when it was broadcast last spring on PBS, and since then it’s had more viewings. It also has been shown in other venues.

“In many ways, the film is being widely used by thousands of organizations around the country who are hoping to expand our nation’s debate over health,” said Mr. Adelman. “What we can and what we should do to tackle health equity. Town hall meetings, community dialogues, service training, policy forums … they’re taking place all around the country. The National Association of County & City Health Officials has 137 departments around the nation and they’re using it to discuss the subject.”

The recognition by the duPonts is especially meaningful because it honors serious work about issues that matter, not only good yarns.

“There’s drama in ideas, not just in stories. Of course we did stories, but we went back and forth from the macro to the micro, trying to look at these larger issues in a way that made a personal connection to viewers,” said Mr. Adelman.

“It’s like the Pulitzer Prize. It’s a wonderful honor,” he added. “To be honest, I don’t put much stock in awards, but this is one that’s really meaningful. So it’s an absolute delight and an honor for all of us, not just for me. This is an award that truly looks at serious works of broadcast journalism.”