Joanne Kenen

Commonwealth Fund Journalist in Residence and Assistant Lecturer

Get to know Joanne Kenen, the first Commonwealth Fund Journalist in Residence at the Bloomberg School of Public Health. In this role, Kenen reports on critical topics at the intersection of public health, health policy, and health equity for Politico Magazine and a variety of publications. She is a member of the core faculty at the Hopkins Business of Health Initiative and also teaches Bloomberg School students about the changing media landscape.

Describe a typical day for you in your role as the first “journalist in residence” at the Bloomberg School of Public Health.

My general day to day includes writing, teaching, and working with students. As a journalist, I have written about contemporary public health issues, including gun violence, mental health, food, agriculture, the environment— things that we didn't always think of as public health but really are pressing public health issues. I’ve also written about homelessness and health, about domestic violence as a health care issue, about access to contraception in a post-Roe world, about family care giving, about equity and social determinants and new approaches to measuring and addressing them. And of course, I have written about the pandemic—as well as the cost, quality, and accessibility of American health care.

At Johns Hopkins, I teach students about the changing economic and political landscape of the American media and how that affects public health. When large swaths of the country no longer have a local paper, what fills those gaps? The politicization of national news, the erosion of local news, the rise of disinformation and misinformation, we're taking all of that and unpacking it from the perspective of what public health practitioners need to understand. I have also loved working with the Hopkins Business of Health Initiative, particularly on our webinars and events.

I’m not a traditional academic but I’m glad I found my way here. Working in this interdisciplinary area, I go from listening to a business professor one minute to talking to the nursing dean the next. I walk away from every interaction with 100 different story ideas. They're also just smart and fun people to talk to.

What signs of hope do you see for combating misinformation and disinformation about health?

Misinformation and disinformation are really two different things. There's misinformation, which is abundant but accidental. But some of it is intentional, right? That's disinformation. Experts in this field do believe it's partly foreign actors, but there's also plenty of homegrown liars—people who are going out and saying the virus is a hoax and the vaccines will kill you. These things are not true and this is disinformation, not misinformation.

Misinformation is accidental. But if you if you keep repeating and repeating and repeating and repeating it, at what point does misinformation become disinformation?

How do we identify it? How do we combat it? How do we stop it? I don't think we have answers yet. If we had answers, we would have stopped it. There are a whole lot of strategies building up and a lot of innovation here, so I see a lot of reason to hope that we’ll get there.

What role do you see journalists playing in the evolution of America's healthcare system?

One of the lasting, most damaging fall-outs to the pandemic is the politicization of public health. Health care has been politicized for decades but public health—not so much. A challenge in media now is to make people understand that this isn't a red or blue thing, this is a saving your life thing.

The disinformation that reached millions of people also made them think there was a trade-off between having public health or having a healthy economy, when in fact you can't have a healthy economy if you have public health crisis after public health crisis.

Journalists can be bridges between fairly technical economic ideas to things that people are socially aware of and care about.

We need that for both political sides to—eventually—shake hands and say, this is bad for our constituents and we're going to work together to solve it.

What do you think is the central tension that underlies national discussions about healthcare?

The traditional ideological battles over healthcare had to do with the role of government and the size of government's involvement in health care. Those arguments tend to fall along more traditional conservative and liberal lines, but the pandemic is different.

Some states have actually stripped power from public health officials. County health officials can't make decisions. State officials are limited in what they can do. It's not just mandated masks. It's deeper than that. So that's a structural problem in our system and it leaves us weaker against whatever happens next. Public health is really about changing behavior and social norms. And if you're shouting at each other, divided into two enemy camps, it becomes harder.

Where do you see areas for bipartisan consensus in health care?

I think the initial pandemic response from Congress was nonpartisan, but then it became partisan. No matter what you think about President Trump, Operation Warp Speed happened during his presidency. Nobody would say it was perfect but was it a really good idea under his watch? It was. His administration created a framework and a funding stream for the really rapid development of a vaccine. That was bipartisan.

I think one of the really interesting things is that a number of Republican-led states are still resisting Medicaid expansion. And yet, every single time there's been a ballot initiative on the matter in these very conservative states, like South Dakota, Idaho, Nebraska, Utah, Oklahoma, they've all passed, and they've passed by pretty strong margins. So there's this political divide on top, but there's also a lot of ways in which the American public really values certain protections on a bipartisan basis. They don’t want Medicaid and protections for preexisting conditions taken away, for example.

The room for bipartisanship in 2024 is narrow, and it will likely be things like telemedicine and transparency. The way you rebuild bipartisan trust is baby steps. We're so divided as a country, so every time you can cut a deal on something small between Republicans and Democrats, you take a baby step together. The next time you can take a toddler step and maybe we make our way back to finding some common ground.

Health equity is a hot topic in health. What myths do people have about the meaning of equity?

I think that some people don't really believe that we still have racism in our society. That how you experience health care is different if your skin color doesn't look like mine. I’ve met researchers with nine advanced degrees who have encountered racism in health care, and I’ve met poor people in West Baltimore who encounter it every day.

Addressing implicit racism, what does that look like? Does that mean having a workshop? Appointing a task force? I think it really means doing the hard work over years to change how we treat people—in all our human interactions, not just in medical treatment.