Partnering with Media Turns a Public Health Story into a Movement

Jul 25, 2011, 3:55 PM, Posted by NewPublicHealth

file Dave Berry, Editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph

What started as a simple series on obesity in the local newspaper turned into a community-wide movement.

George Roberts, Chief Executive Officer of the Northeast Texas Public Health District and Dave Berry, Editor of the Tyler Morning Telegraph, presented at NACCHO Annual 2011 last week about the unique partnership they forged to tackle obesity in Tyler, Texas. Their Fit City Challenge built a powerful community coalition that continues to sustain momentum, driven by media support.

“What the Tyler Morning Telegraph has done for us is akin to a seven figure grant – having Fit City in the paper every single day, being personally invested. If we had gone out front with the effort by ourselves we could’ve been successful, but it’s self-serving,” said Roberts. “When the newspaper calls, they want to tell him yes. Having the media involved has been a key point to this whole effort.”

Roberts and Berry got together because they viewed obesity as one of the greatest threats to their city. More than 60% of Texas adults are overweight or obese, and children born today are not expected to live as long as their parents, said Berry. Following a meeting with concerned medical and community leaders, the Tyler Morning Telegraph decided to take more than a reporting role but also a leadership role in convening the community.

Berry described the newspaper’s role as critical to:

  • Elevate the conversation
  • Reach and educate the public
  • Sustain a long-term effort

Elevate the conversation – In June 2010, with the newspaper at the helm, nearly 100 people showed up to support the community initiative to take action, including representatives from several local hospitals, universities, non-profits, businesses and city government. The coalition is now 300 members strong, representing more than 100 organizations.

Reach and educate the public – The newspaper publishes a success story from the community every week, and works with the local broadcast team to get regular stories on TV news as well. The media also provides support by maintaining a calendar of local resources and events related to getting active.

Sustain a long-term effort – Berry emphasized that though the issue of obesity is “not sexy or dramatic” typical front-page material, like H1N1 or teen drunk driving, it is a serious threat. A threat of that size and scope necessitated more than a single story, but warranted a longer-term commitment to sustaining the effort. The coalition and involvement from throughout the community has grown so that new efforts and support systems continue to evolve and develop organically. Community-driven Fit City efforts have included:

  • Texas College sponsored a 1,000-mile challenge to get all students to walk 1,000 miles by graduation; the community joined in to walk the track along with the college students
  • The Mayor leads monthly FitWalks in different parts of the community
  • Two physical education teachers from a local elementary school started their own walking club, with prizes and incentives, to give children a new way to be active
  • Workplace wellness efforts are under way with local businesses
  • There was an effort to “Ditch the Desserts in May,” in which unhealthy desserts were banned from all community meetings, and replaced with fruit and healthy snacks

The secret, Roberts said, is to release control and not feel like you need to know everything that’s going on. Once a coalition effort reaches the tipping point into a movement, efforts will continue to evolve and sustain themselves organically.

>> Check out highlights from NewPublicHealth coverage of NACCHO 2011

This commentary originally appeared on the RWJF New Public Health blog.