In the late 1990s and early 2000s journalists played a critical role in increasing public awareness of the obesity epidemic and related conditions. Initial scientific reports of serious complications of obesity such as type 2 diabetes occurring in children were met with skepticism. But news reports describing the significant health consequences helped to crystallize the problem, stimulate public discussion, and prompt public health officials, health care providers, scientists, educators, and community members to develop prevention strategies.
Many obesity-related conditions, including heart disease and hypertension, originate in childhood. As a physician, I have treated young patients who struggle with overweight and obesity. I learned from them how their community, home, and school environments affect their ability to be physically active and to eat healthy foods.
We know that we must provide healthy environments, wholesome food, and adult guidance for children. We also must help them learn how to promote and maintain their own health and support the health of their families and communities. Enter Healthy NewsWorks. Established by Marian Uhlman–a former health reporter for the Philadelphia Inquirer and one of those responsible for getting obesity on the public's radar screen early on–Healthy NewsWorks helps young students become health reporters. Uhlman and I met at the home of a mutual friend about 10 years ago and found that we shared interests in promoting public health, particularly in the area of preventing childhood obesity and related disorders. I became a supporter and informal advisor to Healthy NewsWorks and am now a member of its Health Advisory Committee.
With the enthusiastic support of school administrators, Uhlman and her staff work with classroom teachers to incorporate health journalism into the curriculum. The teachers are the editors in chief who encourage the children to connect their writing to the world around them. The stories integrate subject areas, including civics, science, math, reading, and writing. Pursuing information for stories about the many factors that influence physical and mental health, students have interviewed a wide variety of people–among them a chef, a police officer and a judge as well as artists, civic leaders and health care providers. Last year, 3rd and 4th graders from two local schools interviewed me for a story about the safe use of prescription drugs. The students had prepared well for the session; a memorably bright-eyed and eager 3rd grader asked “What happens if someone gets the wrong medicine?”
Since 2003, students in grades 3 to 8 in a total of 25 area schools have published health-focused school newspapers. In 2013-14 alone, 14 schools participated in the program and their papers were distributed to some 6,000 students. In communities where many students and their parents speak Spanish as a first language, papers have even been translated so children can more easily share their health messages. With help from teachers, 3rd and 4th grade students at Gotwals Elementary School in Norristown translated articles for a special edition of the Norristown Tiempos Saludables.
Healthy NewsWorks journalists have published three editions of their book, Leading Healthy Change In Our Communities. Each book included profiles of a dozen people in the Philadelphia area who have ‘made a difference’ in the health of our community. At annual fund-raising events, student journalists have signed their books and spoken with poise and clarity about their experiences in Healthy NewsWorks. This spring the first community edition of a Healthy NewsWorks paper was distributed in doctors' offices, libraries, and other community venues and businesses.
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