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Only on AP: Local data, deep reporting on declining US lifespans

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The nation’s health isn’t improving. In some key measures, it’s getting worse. How is that even possible in an era of genetic medicine and other advances? And how could the AP tell that story and connect it to our customers’ own neighborhoods?

AP medical writer Mike Stobbe and data journalist Nicky Forster started with those questions and delivered a winning package that answered key questions about why American life expectancy is getting shorter while also giving AP customers a way to localize the story.

The package started with Stobbe anticipating news on his beat: Based on earlier data, he expected the CDC – in its annual mortality report at the end of the year – to find that U.S. life expectancy had declined again. The package was timed to run shortly after the CDC report came out (and was widely covered), providing a richer understanding of why American lifespans are shrinking.

To find out what was behind the numbers, Stobbe returned to West Virginia,a place he declared the unhealthiest place in America 10 years ago. (That story generated its own waves,prompting celebrity chef Jamie Oliver to stage a reality TV show there.) He interviewed more than 50 people. What he found was counterintuitive: West Virginia isn’t some strange outlier of bad health; it’s leading the rest of the country the way down. He connected with people trying to get healthier, witnessed the headwinds of the opioid crisis and explained how difficult it is to improve health en masse.

Forster,meanwhile, assembled an impressive collection of data that explained what was happening around the country in terms of life expectancy. He matched up newly released life expectancy estimates for more than 65,000 neighborhoods across the U.S. with demographic data and found striking connections between longevity and income,race and education. The data was distributed to customers, allowing them to write their own stories about what’s happening in their cities and towns. He also built an interactive that allowed readers to see life expectancy in their own neighborhood and wrote a sidebar on the AP’s findings.

The package,which included compelling images shot by freelancer Tyler Evert,won wide play,with Stobbe’s piece getting more than 140,000 views on APNews at an average engagement time of more than a minute. Newspapers around the country did their own front-page stories or used Stobbe’s piece (or both). AP’s Definitive Source blog compiled examples of the localized stories.

For a deeply reported story on how one state’s problems explain why American lifespans are shrinking,and for giving AP customers the data to put the story in local context, Stobbe and Forster win the week’s Best of the States award.

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