What a health and safety section or 'shell' looks like on a news organization's website

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December 1, 2001

Why a health and safety shell?

The development of a health and safety shell for news organization websites emerged out of the Reporting on Violence project. As we worked with reporters on adding a public health approach to reporting violence, it was clear that violent crime reporting should be folded into a news organization's health and safety coverage. After all, homicide and suicide appear in most communities' list of top-ten premature deaths (before the average age of death in a community -- in the U.S., it's around 75 years), along with heart disease, cancer and stroke. Among the top injuries in communities are aggravated assault, much of which is violence against women and children.

With the advent of news organizations using the World Wide Web as a publishing vehicle, and the news organizations' desire to strengthen their principle news franchise -- local coverage -- it was a logical step to organize a crime and violence site to be part of a larger locally oriented community health and safety site. In this Web medium, daily and feature stories can be embedded in a "shell" of data and resources that add context and continuity to a topic to make it easier for readers to personalize news and put it in context.

What's a shell?

Context and continuity are hard to come by in print and television. Newspapers get thrown into the daily recycle pile. TV news disappears into the ether. News organizations that initially embraced the immediacy of the Web are beginning to take advantage of two of its other most important characteristics -- context and continuity. On the Web, stories of the day can sit in the middle of links to data, community resources, stories that have been previously published, and background information that don't have to be repeated in every story on the same topic.

A Web shell comprises the links to data, resources, backgrounders and archives that wrap around the stories of the day. Web shells can be compared to Russian "nesting" dolls. Story shells can live in issues shells, which can live in beat shells.

A beat shell organizes the data, resources, backgrounders and archives for traditional news beats, such as sports, business, local and state government, education, health and safety, transportation, etc. Examples of good beat shells include the New York Times business site, CJOnline's Kansas Legislature site, Lawrence Journal-World's KU Sports site, the Sacramento Bee's entertainment site, and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer's Transportation site.

An issue shell organizes data, resources, backgrounders and archives around an issue that the news organization is likely to cover for a while. Many news organizations dabbled in issue shells before the September 11, 2001 attack on the World Trade Center, but almost all embraced them after the terrorist attack generated so much news and information. Examples of issue shells relating to Sept. 11 are the Washington Post's America at War, the Los Angeles Times' Response to Terror, and the PBS News Hour's The Response. Other issue shells include TBO.com's Hurricane WeatherCenter. The Washington Post organizes its issue shells into a "specials" section.

A story shell organizes data, resources, and backgrounders in a story package. Examples: Durham Herald-Sun's Touching Hearts, the Magnolia Plantation story in a New York Times "Race in America" series (click on "launch complete flash tour"), and the Everett (Washington) Herald Waterfront Renaissance site.

What's in a health and safety beat shell?

Although many news organizations cover health as a beat, most of the stories focus on one event, person, or issue. There's little attention paid to the overall health status of the community. Are people getting healthier in this community? Or is the community's health deteriorating? What are the top ten causes of premature death (before the average age of death in a community - in the U.S., it's around 75 years), and what are community leaders doing to decrease those deaths? What are the top ten chronic diseases? What are the top ten causes of injury? Are other communities doing a better job of reducing injuries and deaths? The U.S. Department of Health has set national goals on improving the health of Americans. How is this community measuring up?

Many local news organizations' health sites or sections run nationally focused stories about the newest "disease of the week," such as SARS or West Nile virus. These stories leave readers wondering how that disease plays out in their own backyard - how much of a threat is the disease in this community? How does it compare to other diseases -- is it something I need to worry about, or are the chances of me or my family getting it about the same as being hit by lightning?

By knowing what the community's major health problems are, i.e., by accumulating community health data, a news organization can provide more health information that's relevant and useful to its readers and viewers. Adding local databases to a health Web shell provides continually updated information on the injuries, diseases and deaths people in the local community are most likely to suffer. Readers can use data to obtain a clear picture of the health risks in their community for making informed public policy decisions (if second-hand smoke causes lung cancer, should I vote to ban smoking in local restaurants?), and to personalize a general story to make informed personal decisions (this Associated Press story says school violence on the rise nationally -- should I worry about school violence in my child's school?).

Reporters can mine this data to ask questions: Since there's a high rate of lung cancer deaths in this community, should the city council ban smoking in public places to help reduce deaths? Since car crashes that involve high rates of speed are common, what needs to be done to enforce traffic laws? Since there are higher rates of asthma in the local Latino community than the Caucasian community, is there a disparity in health care?

Readers can use the data and resources in this site as one-stop-shopping for information about local health and safety resources. These range from lists (medical clinics that specialize in obesity, shelters for battered women), to maps (of bicycle and hiking trails), to the status of legislation (violence prevention proposals, funding for bicycle lanes on city streets).

This model health and safety shell is designed to contain:

  • Data:
    Links to local city or county, state and national health data. Readers and viewers can find out for themselves if, for example, flu and pneumonia are more of problem for the elderly than children. They can find out if lung cancer or breast cancer is more of a problem in their community. They can find out if their neighborhood, which has many alcohol outlets, has more or fewer incidents of violence than the neighborhood a mile away that has fewer alcohol outlets. They can find out if asthma rates have increased or decreased in their ethnic group.
  • Health providers:
    A complete listing and links to local health care providers, searchable by category listings -- physicians, dentists, rehabilitation services, physical fitness clubs, etc.
  • Government agencies:
    Links to public health, social services, police, fire and parks and recreation departments. Also links to relevant state sites of public health, attorney general, transportation, environmental, and corrections.
  • Legislation:
    Links to the status of health- and safety-related local, state and national legislation.
  • Health research:
    Links to a site (e.g., Healthfinder, WebMD, Healthology) that provides resources and basic information on consumer health.
  • Community and advocacy groups:
    Links to local organizations and local branches of national and/or state organizations, such as United Way, American Lung Association, Mothers Against Drunk Driving, Child Abuse Prevention Council, etc.
  • Support Groups:
    Links to local support groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous, cancer survivors, domestic abuse survivors, etc.
  • Archives:
    Links to previous stories, by date. This augments the "Search" function at the top of the health and safety home page.
  • Special Sections:
    Links to inside pages that focus on a particular health or safety issue (e.g., tobacco, cancer, heart disease, alcohol, domestic violence, child abuse) that will be covered regularly and has its own sets of links and data.

How can a news organization adapt this model health and safety shell?

The first steps in building a local health and safety shell are to:

  • Put together a demographic map of the community - overall population, as well as population by age group, ethnic group, geographic distribution (rural, suburban and urban), economic distribution, and gender. Resources include city and county GIS (geographic information system) specialists, as well as U.S. Census data.
  • Compile health data sources: Explore the websites of the state departments of health and criminal justice. In the department of health, find the epidemiologists or people with titles like this: Chief, Vital Statistics Data Analysis, Center for Health & Environmental Statistics. In the police department, find the people who do data analysis or use GIS. (Remember, violence is a health issue, so violent crime data can be cross-linked with health data, such as emergency room and hospital admissions.)
  • Compile information for the links to government agencies that deal with health and safety, to a complete list of health care providers, to legislation, community and advocacy groups and support groups.
  • Focus on the community's most important health issues by creating "issue shells" of, for example, the top five premature death, injury and chronic diseases. These are likely to be covered regularly, and to be used by most of the news organization's readers or viewers. The links to support groups, community and advocacy groups, legislation, data and government agencies can be sorted to focus on the particular issue.
  • Decide how to include, on a regular basis, reporting of the community's most important health issues, as well as the most important health issues in different demographic groups (age, ethnic, geographic, economic, and gender).
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