COLLEGE PARK (5/4/18) — A team of University of Maryland Capital News Service student journalists spent more than a year analyzing millions of medical records and conducting dozens of interviews with Baltimore health officials, community leaders and residents to show how housing conditions contribute to illness in one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods.
Their work was recognized Friday with the 2018 Robert F. Kennedy Journalism Award, one of the most prestigious prizes in college journalism. It’s the third time the Philip Merrill College of Journalism has won the award. A WMUC project led by senior lecturer Sue Kopen Katcef (’76) won in 2009 and CNS won in 2004 for a project by Sarah Schaffer (M.A. ’03) — now an adjunct lecturer at the college — that was led by former bureau director Steve Crane.
The winning Merrill College students and faculty members will be recognized during an awards ceremony at the Newseum in Washington on May 22.
Student journalists in the CNS data lab, led by data editor Sean Mussenden (M.J. ‘00), reviewed some 10 million cases of inpatient and emergency room admissions in Maryland.
Their analysis revealed that residents in one Baltimore ZIP code — a short distance from world-renowned medical institutions — suffer from asthma at more than four times the rate of people in the city’s wealthier areas.
The illness can have a striking effect on low-income citizens — asthma can cause children to miss school, forcing adults to miss work or find care for their child. And there’s little government funding to help pay for asthma treatment.
“I think people look at asthma the way they look at seasonal allergies,” said Sandy Banisky, the college’s Abell Professor in Baltimore Journalism and the project’s editor. “‘Take a Claritin and you’ll be fine,’” they think, but asthma is a much more serious and chronic condition.
The investigation, published as a series of stories called “Home Sick,” was conducted in partnership with Kaiser Health News. Parts of the project were published by The Washington Post and The Baltimore Sun.
Competing against submissions from professional news organizations, the project was a finalist in the community journalism category of the Scripps Howard Awards this year. It won the Online In-Depth Reporting category of the Society of Professional Journalists’ Region 2 Mark of Excellence Awards.
The story was told through words, pictures, video and graphics. Students used traditional reporting methods and intense data analysis to gather information.
“The RFK awards are among the most prestigious in journalism, and this is the third time Merrill College has won,” Dean Lucy A. Dalglish said. “The impact of this story still resonates, and hopefully will lead to improvements in housing conditions around the country. We’re thrilled for our students.”
Interviews and other research were underpinned by CNS’ analysis of two massive datasets obtained from the Maryland Health Services Cost Review Commission. Working with Kaiser, CNS submitted a Maryland Public Information Act request and was granted access to a slice of a database the state uses to track medical procedures and their cost. To protect patient privacy, individuals’ identifying information was stripped from the data CNS received.
“Very few journalists get access to this type of information,” said Mussenden, who runs the CNS data lab in College Park. “All of the data querying work was done out of here.”
Daniel Trielli (M.J. ’16) was among the CNS data journalists writing those queries to help “investigate asthma hot spots in Baltimore.”
Naema Ahmed (B.A. ‘17) and Helen Lyons (M.J. ‘17) — identified the 21223 ZIP code as such a hot spot. The area includes the Southwest Baltimore neighborhood of Carrollton Ridge.
Ahmed, who graduated as a double major in journalism and computer science, said the estimated cost was staggering.
“It put into perspective how much money individuals and insurance are spending to treat asthma instead of preventing it,” Ahmed said.
Ahmed, Trielli and Lyons then worked with Kaiser and Banisky’s Baltimore Urban Affairs Reporting class to develop interactive graphics showing what they learned from the data. Ana Hurler designed the web page.
Abby Mergenmeier (M.J. ‘17) was part of a group that included Mark Boyle, Quanny Carr (M.J. ‘17), Michael Errigo, Jenna Milliner-Waddell, John Powers, Talia Richman (‘17) and Jacob Taylor who reported from Baltimore. She said many Carrollton Ridge residents recognized the environmental conditions that were making them ill — trash in the streets, old mattresses piled high, rats running about.
But those interviewed said they could not afford to move away.
“A good majority of the homes in that neighborhood are vacant, and a lot of the lots are just full of trash,” Mergenmeier said. “It’s become, unfortunately, a dumping site, which has caused air quality issues in the neighborhood.”
The reporting required persistence; it was often a challenge to find residents willing to speak on the record.
“These students were so game,” Banisky said. “They were knocking on doors and having doors slammed in their faces.”
Carr was among the reporters trying to persuade residents that their story was worth telling.
“These people want to live in healthier homes,” Carr said. “They want their kids to be healthier. … What are we going to do as reporters except tell their truth?”
Carr said reporters in Baltimore and data journalists in College Park working together seamlessly under Capital News Service, the college’s nonprofit news organization that’s led by professional journalists and fully staffed by undergraduate and master’s students.
For some, the project drove home the professional opportunities their skills provide. “For a long time, I wanted to be a reporter. And I also wanted to get a technical skill while I was paying for college,” said Ahmed, now an interactive news intern at USA TODAY.
“It wasn’t until I worked at CNS that I realized I could use my skill in the reporting field.”