Healthy Engagement at USC Annenberg

Olivia Henry supports USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellows as they strengthen their reporting through engagement

Olivia Henry has some questions that keep her up at night. Henry’s concerned about the relationship between journalists and the communities they’re engaging with. “What are you giving back to people that they can use?”

These are questions Henry is able to explore as the engagement editor for the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Each year, USC Annenberg Health Journalism Fellows have the opportunity to apply for an additional engagement grant to support collaboration with their communities. This is where Henry comes in. She works with reporters to rethink who they are writing for and what the exchange between journalists and a community should look like. She says, “Journalism can so often be extractive, ‘can you give me a quote or not?’ People who participate in an engaged journalism effort are a different kind of source. Impacted people who come to you and say, ‘I want to help you’ aren’t just anybody in your rolodex. They require scrutiny, but also care.”

This mentality is reflected in the work of the reporting fellows Henry has mentored. The Listening Post Collective has been fortunate enough to get to know Henry and the Center for Health Journalism Fellows over the past couple years. We asked Henry to share with us summaries of some of her fantastic engagement experiments.


Mackenzie Mays

One of Mackenzie Mays’ listening posts at a nonprofit for women and girls in Visalia, Calif. Credit: Mackenzie Mays

Fresno Bee reporter Mackenzie Mays noticed that when it came to sex education, teenagers were often talked about instead of with. As part of her work with Henry and USC, Mays surveyed 150 Fresno Unified students and learned nearly 90 percent of them didn’t receive the sex ed lessons now required by state law, Mays wrote. Those survey results were the basis for this story about students’ perceptions of their own education.

As part of her engagement experiments, Mays set up microphones paired with poster boards asking students to share their experiences in sex ed and visions for what a better sex ed curriculum might look like. Mays and Henry held a focus group of male students at a nearby high school. That feedback broadly shaped themes in a story about teen fathers. Mays hosted a photobooth at the Central California Women’s Conference for women to share what they wish they had learned in sex ed. Their honest, funny responses are evidence of what happens when you ask a good question.

Mays shared a wonderful example of how engagement not only made her reporting stronger, but how it improved relationships with community members: “For example, in the midst of my fellowship reporting, a school official approached me about a headline in one of my stories that used the word “delinquent” to describe the student body at an alternative school. In the past, she may have emailed me or my editors about it, but she said she now felt like she could confront me honestly because of the engagement work that I had done with her and her students.”

“I realized that the fellowship had totally changed my way of thinking — and listening.”

Molly Peterson

Molly Peterson talks with a woman waiting for the bus in Pacoima. Credit: Olivia Henry

Freelance reporter Molly Peterson knew that shade at bus stops is an important issue for many people in Pacoima, a neighborhood in Los Angeles’s San Fernando Valley that experiences some of the city’s most punishing temperatures. So, as part of her reporting on the emerging science around extreme heat and health, she and Henry set up umbrellas at a popular bus stop without shelter and served chilled water. They engaged passengers in conversation about their experience of heat and asked them to map their hot spots and cool spots on a large map of the Valley. See the map here.

Peterson also placed heat and humidity sensors in Pacoima and South Los Angeles homes. She collected data and graphed the results; check out some of those results in this article. Many of the sensor participants live in un-air conditioned, uninsulated homes that — as anyone who’s lived in such a house knows and Peterson’s data confirmed — heat up during the day and retain higher temperatures inside that outside. For elders and parents of small children (two groups particularly vulnerable to heat-related illness) the choice to find refuge from the heat inside or outside is often a tricky one.

Not all of their concepts worked flawlessly. As Peterson wrote: “Don’t be afraid to tweak your engagement along the way. It’s a mistake to ask people to give you feedback about how you’re talking to them and then ignore it. When someone from the community told me something we were doing wasn’t working, I tended to believe them. When I didn’t incorporate that lesson, even though I knew they were right, even where I had a legitimate reason for staying the course, it hampered my efforts.”

Peterson turned her reporting, original data and engagement into an article for High Country News, a series for KCRW and an episode of NPR’s CodeSwitch.

Sandy Mazza

In December 2017, the Daily Breeze published a story about toxic chemicals used to maintain Los Angeles’ neighborhood oil wells. Diane and Florencio Flores were surprised to find a striking image of their home, which sits cheek by jowl with a drill site, featured prominently in the story. The article didn’t include any interviews with residents living near the wells and the Flores family wasn’t aware that chemical treatment had taken place next door.

Large trucks visit the well site next door to the Flores’ nearly every day. Mazza worked with neighbors to answer their questions about the well, pollution and how residents can take action. Credit: Olivia Henry

Just months later, the Flores’ relationship with journalism looked very different. Instead of being the subject of news, they were helping to create it. Working with Henry, Daily Breeze reporter Sandy Mazza and the Flores family partnered to place an air quality monitor on the side of their home closest to the well. In a daily log, Florencio tracked the movements of trucks on his street and recorded his headaches, curious to connect his physical symptoms to the air data being recorded in his backyard. His wife went door to door asking neighbors to attend a meeting in her home. At the meeting, an epidemiologist explained research about air pollution and Henry asked residents what more they wanted to know about pollution and the well. Mazza answered to their questions in this resulting story. The paper also published a research guide for people wanting to investigate their own neighborhood wells.

Sandy consulted with community groups and residents to identify sites to place other air quality monitors. At one of the sites, a monitor was hosted by a San Pedro high school student who used the data for a class science project. Read the article about the student here.


2018 fellows are well under way with their engagement projects. Engagement grantees are exploring a broad range of health topics including the ways in which the legalization of marijuana has impacted conversations between parents and children, high suicide rates in rural Amador County and the health impacts of the annexation of the primarily Latino neighborhood of Roseland into the city of Santa Rosa.

Head over to the Center for Health Journalism website to learn more about their various fellowships and check out projects produced by former fellows. The deadline for applications for the 2018 Data Fellowship, which is open to journalists from across the country, is fast approaching. Learn more and apply here.


The Listening Post Collective is a project of Internews. We provide journalists, newsroom leaders, and non-profits tools and advice to create meaningful conversations with their communities. We believe responsible reporting begins with listening. From there, media outlets and community organizations can create news stories that respond to people’s informational needs, reflect their lives, and enable them to make informed decisions.