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Sick Time



There is one national story that will directly affect every resident of Humboldt County: passage of health care reform in Congress. If it passes it promises insurance for those who don't have it and possibly hundreds of dollars in savings each month for those who do. Over the past two weeks, you could find in the Times-Standard stories on health care reform interspersed with these stories on the national page: new field training at West Point; the difficulty soda ash producers in Wyoming have against Chinese competition; the closing of a federal anthrax probe after eight years; the oldest synagogue in the United States opening a new visitor center in Rhode Island; and the Department of Energy denying a loan guarantee for an Ohio uranium plant.

To quote my groggy headed husband when he picked up the paper this morning and saw the article on West Point: "Who picks these stories?"

Meanwhile there is a tragic story closer to home that hasn't gotten the coverage it deserves. That's the fallout from the state budget, which if you break down the cuts, will also directly affect just about every resident of the county. Here's how Thadeus Greenson began his story on the passage of the budget: "With a stroke of his pen Tuesday, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger made official what is perhaps the largest reduction in state services California has ever seen. "

Largest ever. Doesn't that scream huge coverage? I don't know about you, but when I read later in the story that on top of the severe cuts we knew would come, Schwarzenegger erased another $80 million in child welfare, $61 million from Medi-Cal, $52 million from AIDS prevention and treatment, $50 million from Healthy Families, $27.8 million from the Williamson Act program and $6.2 million more from state parks, I gasped.

But after one follow-up story that concerned possible legal challenges to the budget cuts, Greenson was off to Reggae Rising, where he filed three stories. You might disagree, but I think that people who missed Reggae Rising don't care enough to read about it after the fact, and those who went know as much about it as Greenson, or were too stoned to care.

What readers also don't need is spotty and superficial coverage of an important issue. Don't just tell us that Schwarzenegger erased $80 million in child welfare spending, tell us what that means. I had to Google child poverty to find out how many children it might affect: 2.1 million in California and 7,734 in this county. The story didn't tell me how much had been cut before the veto. Nor did it put into perspective how low the pole is set to qualify for welfare aid: The federal government doesn't consider you impoverished unless your family of four earns less than $18,500.

There are two ways journalists can effect change: Report and write something that gets many people to act or write something that gets one person to act who has inordinate influence, power or money. If you write a story about someone's plight and in response either hundreds of people write their congressman or Bill Gates reads it and cuts a check, you effect real change.

You get people -- either one or many -- to care by zeroing in on the people affected, not the numbers. Eighty million means little when you can't picture the people affected. One hungry child's face is a different story.

But the cuts to child welfare are just a piece of the tragedy that is the state budget. If the newspaper labeled the budget crisis as the tragedy it is, the news coverage of it would change. If a bus carrying a bunch of school girls went off the edge of a cliff (this happened early in my reporting career) everyone would define that as a tragedy. News organizations give that kind of story huge, almost never-ending coverage. My newspaper put half the reporting staff on the bus accident story for a week. But consider what this state budget has done -- stripped food money from children we suspect were already going hungry, needed services away from home-bound seniors, pay from people who can barely pay their rent and jobs from people who might lose their houses. Here in Humboldt, two public colleges employ so many people with families. Together we face one ugly school year. State parks are closing. It goes on and on.

How can the paper do stories on festivals and parties in a time of economic panic? Instead of talking to people down in Dimmick Ranch, find people at the half-empty mall and talk to them about their jobs. Or go to the emergency room and talk to people about their insurance. As a reporter I hated doing man-on-street stories. As a reader wondering whether my neighbors are as affected by what's going on as I am, I eat those stories up.

Two weeks ago, Myrtletown resident Tom Fredrickson describe me as clueless as to how the real world operates and naïve in my hopes when I suggested that local papers share coverage and the Times-Standard nix its national and international news to focus on important local stories. I do know how the world operates but I plead guilty to naïveté. So here is my revised wish for local coverage. In a time of skeletal staffing and stretched resources, focus on important stories. You can't over-cover news that affects so many of our lives and livelihoods. And when going through the newswire to fill your national page, find stories closer to our homes and pockets.

Marcy Burstiner is an assistant professor of journalism and mass communication at Humboldt State University. If you have comments or suggestions for her, shoot her an email. She will be furloughed 20 days this coming year so she will have plenty of time to read it.

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