Two SF Bay Area journalists have been recognized by the White House Correspondent’s Association for their extraordinary body of work on the dramatic extent of regional life expectancy variation and the causes that drive it. Suzanne Bohan and Sandy Kleffman will receive the Edgar Allen Poe Award for excellence in important news coverage from President Obama at the Association’s awards dinner in Washington DC on May 1. They are the only winners this year from outside the Beltway, and the award is richly deserved.
Their four-part series “Shortened Lives: Where You Live Matters” documented the dramatic differences in life expectancy between neighborhoods in the SF Bay Area, and showed that much of the variation was due to differences in pollution exposure, lack of routine health care availablity, scarcity of fresh unprocessed food and an in some places an environment so dangerous that outdoor exercise is impossible.
In the midst of the national health care debate, these exceptionally well-reported stories offer unique and valuable lessons for public health policy.
Through extensive use of county health records, Bohan and Kleffman stand conventional wisdom on its head, providing powerful evidence that variations in disease rates and life expectancies between neighborhoods in Alameda County, Calif., are not–as widely assumed–the result of poor people making bad choices about diet and exercise. Rather the discrepancies stem from multiple forces that deny those living in poor communities access to the basic resources necessary to engage in a healthy lifestyle, however great their desire to do so.
These powerful and poignant stories provide an important new lens that snaps the health care debate into sharp focus. While looking closely at these issues at the county level, the stories in this series have profound national and regional implications, providing strong evidence that blaming the victims is not a substitute for dealing seriously with the underlying causes of the health care crisis.
This body of knowledge is critical to understanding how our socioeconomic system practices a slow-motion form of class-based genocide, and what we as a society must do in the way of policy changes to remedy these unconscionable and wasteful inequities. We have a long way to go before equality of opportunity for all is fully realized in America; Kleffman and Bohan have made a significant contribution to reaching that goal. Congratulations to them, and to the Bay Area News Group and Contra Costa Times for supporting this kind of quality journalism. Kudos also to the WHCA judges who made this award, for stepping outside the usual self-congratulatory backslapping and actually recognizing significant work.
Other WHCA awards went as they usually do to insiders for doing insider-ish sorts of things. Ben Feller of AP was recognized for his extraordinary sacrifice in staying up all night, one night, to do his job. Mark Knoller of CBS News gained an award for his lifetime effort to condense complex and nuanced issues into successively smaller bits of meaningless gibberish. ABC News’ odiously unctious – or should I rather say “unctiously odious” – Jake Tapper was honored for his ability to repeat Radical Reactionary Right Wing talking points while keep a straight face and not throwing up in his mouth. Or something like that.