Community service journalism

It’s awards season in journalism-land, and I’m delighted to announce that one of the last major pieces I wrote at the Belleville News-Democrat has won a significant award.

Co-written with Alexis Cortes, the story was a year-long examination of mental health and suicide prevention among teenagers. It actually began life as a rumor that teen suicide had skyrocketed at a local school district, and after close examination, it turned out that wasn’t statistically true. But it sparked our interest in a subject often swept under the rug because of the massive misconceptions and stigma attached to mental illness, particularly among young people.

Around that time the TV series 13 Reasons Why came out, with a great deal of controversy about how the subject was handled. As we spoke to experts, it seems the people creating that series asked mental health professionals and advocates how to carefully and sensibly handle the issue of teen suicide… and basically did exactly the opposite of what psychologists recommend.

So we decided to look at the issue itself, and do it right, though I don’t think we realized it would take until the second season’s premiere to publish.

I think it’s fair to say that Alexis and I spent nearly as much time figuring out how to report this subject as we did actually reporting it. We interviewed survivors, family members, teachers, psychologists, social workers, school officials… and at the end of every interview, we asked them, “How do you recommend we cover this subject without causing harm?” We studied the language choices recommended by psychologists to be respectful and responsible without engaging in hyperbole or romanticizing the subject.

Suicide contagion is a real thing, and both Alexis and I were committed that we would rather not cover the story at all than do it wrong and tip someone over the edge.

We wrote a main story that began with a survivor’s narrative, focusing on her recovery and a look insider her mind. This was a deliberate choice after talking with psychologists: focus on survivors rather than the grieving, distraught families of those who died by suicide. The former approach helps those in crisis see that there is a way back; the latter tends to push them off the edge.

We covered national and local stats, efforts by schools to help teens in crisis, the controversy around the show, social stigmas, treatment options, what makes depression different in teens and young people, warning signs for parents and educators, and more.

We also did a sidebar listing all the mental health options in our coverage counties, from counseling clinics to inpatient facilities; a list of myths debunked and symptoms for which to watch; and a narrative of a day-long seminar in addressing mental illness in the classroom for area educators. I sat with them all day, taking the same training they took.

During that time there was a reorganization at the newspaper, and I was shifted to a new beat. This was part of the long delay in publishing, as well as the general crazy of daily news that tends to shove major projects to the back burner. However, I was permitted to stay on the project, for which I remain exceedingly grateful.

We also created an internal plan for how to handle the release, which we developed in concert with the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the SPJ Ethics Committee members and ReportingOnSuicide.org, a cooperative effort of nine journalism organizations to maintain and improve best practices in reporting and writing about mental illness.

Every story included paragraphs reminding readers that help was available and offering the national suicide prevention hotline. As per the recommendations of the experts we interviewed, the first comment on each part of the package was another post of the hotline, and the staff was instructed to carefully monitor the comments in case someone in crisis was posting.

I can’t speak for Alexis, but I think I was never so nervous about any story I’ve reported than this one, including physically-dangerous situations or controversial investigations. It’s not often that the words you choose and the approach you take could literally kill someone. We both poured over every word before we even sent it over to the editors, who also treated it with great caution. It needed to be done right, or not at all.

It was a difficult but rewarding experience, and I remain exceedingly proud of the final product. I was doing mostly crime and spot news by that point, so unless my memory fails me, it was the last major story I wrote at the BND. It ran in May 2018; I left in July.

So it was with no small delight that I received a message from my former partner last week informing me that we had won first place for community service journalism from the Illinois Press Association. In fact, the News-Democrat swept that category, winning all four awards.

Nobody does the job for awards – or, if you do, it’s time to hang it up, because you have forgotten that we are first and foremost servants of the public. And, to be honest, I was more often a toiler in the vineyard, shoveling fuel into the furnace of daily news and not often on those extensive, major projects that tend to catch the eye of the major awards.

But the real value in awards attention is to encourage this kind of in-depth reporting that is too easy to hand-wave in the era of clicks. There are ways to feed the daily beast and also do serious, intensive work, but it takes the dedication of capable staff and the commitment of responsible editors, with an eye to ethics and experts. It’s what we should be doing, and if it wins an award, maybe it will encourage others to give that kind of coverage a try.

I’m especially proud to share the award with Alexis Cortes, who is a fine journalist and great writer with a keen mind. She was a terrific partner, and has just been named one of Editor & Publisher’s 25 Under 35 for this year. Her latest project: an in-depth look at gun violence killing kids as part of the Since Parkland series.

We should all be glad to work for her one day.

River Bluff Review

I am happy to report that the annual edition of the River Bluff Review has been published, which includes one of my photographs.

My photography has been sold many times to individual people, won minor awards, licensed as book covers, and provides the context of essays and travelogues for my Patreon. But this is the first time it’s been chosen for publication by a literary journal. The program is managed by students at SIUE, and is very selective; the short story I submitted was not selected, even though my photograph was.

The photo they chose is titled “Silent Cell,” and I shot it while visiting the Missouri State Penitentiary in Missouri. Somehow I seem to have forgotten to write up this visit, and I could have sworn I did so, but cannot find a sign of it in any of my various blogs. It was an interesting experience, full of history and more than a little darkness – the penitentiary was one of the few places where executions were carried out, and the gas chamber is part of the tour. It is also the place where James Earl Ray was incarcerated before he escaped, and while on the lam, he assassinated Dr. Martin Luther King.

I took a great number of photos, trying to compensate for very difficult lighting. This is the one River Bluff Review chose:

This photo is available for purchase on ElizabethDonaldPhotography.com.

I am honored to be in fine company, and hope the annual edition does well. The River Bluff Review is not available online as far as I know, but I think it can be purchased through the English Department of Southern Illinois University Edwardsville.

Birthday Special! Meet the Muse!

One of the most popular bits of silliness I ever wrote was a series of blog posts called “Conversations with the Muse.” The Muse is the creative, cantankerous voice in my head who yells at me and keeps the writing on track.

For the first ten years or so of my fiction writing career, the Muse (and assorted other voices) worked out plot twists and ways to torment characters, while my saner mind managed the tasks of being a single mom and a reporter. Sort of. My conversations with the Muse were frequent, profane, sometimes more than a little frustrated, and always snarky. They were posted in a private blog accessible only to close friends, now long defunct.

Many, many times I have been asked to compile the Muse posts into a book. Apparently, she’s a popular lady, though she would probably put her fist through the face of anyone who said that.

As I approach my birthday (39 plus tax, and I’ll have words with anyone who says different), I’d just like to tell you that if you ever thought about buying me a present (or even if you haven’t), the best thing you could possibly do would be to subscribe to my Patreon.

All my best material is going on the Patreon these days: short stories, novel snippets, travelogues, photo essays, blog musings, even the Door Project, which has been delightfully fun all semester. The Patreon is an important part of my family’s income, but it has also been mentally and creatively stimulating in ways I hadn’t anticipated.

So I’m taking advantage of a new Patreon feature and offering an ebook as a special bonus to anyone who subscribes between now and March 25. It’s “Conversations With The Muse,” ranging from the arguments over my first novel back in 2003 up to her most recent appearance last month, as well as two short stories in which the Muse led me on a visit down the rabbit hole to visit my characters.

Already a subscriber? Don’t worry, you’re getting the ebook too! Along with my thanks for your kind support and diligently hanging in there while I worked out the kinks in the Patreon system. And if you increase your pledge by at least one level during the birthday week, you’ll get a secret extra bonus!

Sure, you can think of it as a birthday present if you want. But I’m hoping you’ll like what you see, enough to stay and keep reading what I’m putting out there each month. I try to sing for my supper, and I hope what I’m singing is pleasing to your ears.

Excerpt: Feb. 24, 2005

I’m stuck on a part of A More Perfect Union, namely the falling-in-love part. I thought maybe I’d go for a nice walk in the woods along the bike trail near the apartment, and see if I can remember how people fall in love.


ME: So, how do you fall in love?
MUSE: Never did.
ME: Sure you did.
MUSE: Nope.
ME: I made you up. I wrote you. You fell in love once.
MUSE: No, that was Crawford, in Sanctuary. She’s the one who fell in love. I’m the part of you that steers clear of all that.
ME: Oh great. I hope nobody notices I’m walking here talking to myself.
MUSE: Nobody’s here. It’s fucking February. You’re the only one nuts enough to walk on a trail the day after a goddamn snowstorm.
ME: Wuss.
(pass underpass construction site)
ME: I think it’s nice that the bike path doesn’t have to make way for the new road, and the new road doesn’t stop for the bike path. They get to coexist.
MUSE: Very philosophical. Note the graffiti.
ME: Ugh. Little bastards. Is that a tiger?
MUSE: I think it’s supposed to be Satan.
ME: Those aren’t horns.
MUSE: No, but the 666 all around him is kind of a tipoff.
ME: Idiot little gangsta wannabes. Any of them saw anything really bad they’d wet their pants. 
MUSE: Is this what we’re out here for?
ME: Fuck you. I need to think sappy thoughts. When was the last time I fell in love?
MUSE: You do not want to go there.
ME: Good point. I can’t remember how people fall in love.
(stops)
(stares)
ME: What the fuck is that?
MUSE: A stick.
ME: It’s got fur.
MUSE: Dead animal.
(stares)
ME: That’s the severed leg of a deer.
MUSE: Yup, it is.
ME: Deer are my favorite animal.
MUSE: Uh huh.
ME: Is there any WORSE fucking karma than this? It’s you, isn’t it? This is what happens when I’m talking to you!
MUSE: We should report this to someone.
ME: There’s no road anywhere near here! The road is like 200 feet away and 20 feet up with guardrails!
MUSE: Don’t smell anything, either.
ME: Idiot. It snowed. Nothing’s going to rot until the thaw.
MUSE: Ew.
ME: YOU’RE saying ew? You?
MUSE: I’ve got a thing about amputation.
ME: Which of us is the tough bitch? I forgot.
MUSE: That’s the severed leg of a deer. I’m all out of romantic thoughts.
ME: Now there’s no way that scene gets written today.
MUSE: I think we should go home and report this.
ME: Severed leg of a deer. Next to quasi-satanic graffiti. This shit only happens to me.

Oooooooklahoma and AEJMC

I am happy to report that my sort-of first academic conference went well, in that I completed my presentation and no one threw anything at me or shouted “Heretic!” and tried to chase me from the building. My barometer for “went well” might be a little low, but remember, I work in the news business.

Technically my first academic conference was the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity, where I spoke about the 2014 project to rewrite and update the SPJ Code of Ethics a couple of years ago. I was a bundle of nerves there as well, but I was not presenting original research; merely reporting on a process in which I was part, and with extensive assistance from then-chairman Andrew Seaman and former chairman Kevin Smith. 

The conference took place the first weekend of March at the University of Oklahoma in Norman, Okla., which is just south of Oklahoma City. I flew down on Feb. 28 and took the afternoon to look around Oklahoma City before settling in to be all academic and stuff.

This is me landing in Oklahoma. Another state checked off the life to-do list.

This is the first academic conference where I was presenting my own research, and as my friends and colleagues know, my research last semester was wrought with blood and tears, so I was more than a little uneasy about the presentation.

But no moreso than my traveling companions, both of whom are my fellow first-year masters students and at least twenty years younger than I, the younglings.

Meet Rahul Menon and Jonathan Johnson, two of my fellow grad students and Power Rangers. They call me GradMom. This picture lives in proof that Jonathan can exist without his Alienware baseball cap.

I’m glad to report that AEJMC is a fairly low-key and welcoming conference, with three or four presentations per hour in small rooms with receptive audiences. Following the presentations, there is a respondent (who apparently was tasked with reading all the papers) who gives initial feedback, then questions and comments from the audience.

The respondent for my session could not make it, which was both a disappointment and a relief – I hope for real feedback, but I’d be just as happy not to get it in front of a live studio audience. I’m shy. 

I attended many other sessions as well, and got a sense of what kind of research is taking place on the academic side of the field. This is different than the usual trade conferences I attend (and certainly different than the pop culture cons). 

The trade conferences tend to be focused on practical applications, career advice, recounting of methods and approaches, and other how-to’s for performing and promoting journalism.

At the pop culture cons, there’s usually people in costume. This was not present at AEJMC.

The Gaylord College of Journalism and Mass Communication at OU was amazing. I wanted to steal their building and bring it back home. Their newsroom was bigger than some newspapers I’ve worked, I’m just saying.

Here are some of the research projects I heard presented:

• A game-based intervention on adults for media literacy did not yield the expected results, but showed promise for refinement in helping to promote the ability to discern fact from fiction in news content. 

Note: The more education one has, the more one interacts with text and the more time you spend on content, the more likely you are to be able to discern fact from fiction and resist manipulation. Yet another nail in the coffin of “not everyone needs an education,” in my opinion. 

As one person in the audience suggested, it is high time universities considered mothballing the old-fashioned “speech” class requirement in favor of intro to media or media literacy for all undergrads. Not every professional adult is going to give speeches in their work life, but everyone will need media literacy going forward. Food for thought. 

• Along that line of thought, West Texas A&M University developed a service learning model for media literacy. Freshman students went through a five-week training course in media literacy, then went into the area high schools and taught the principles of media literacy to high-schoolers. The high schools want to incorporate it into their curriculum, but are swamped with mandates and limited on time and resources. 

The program emphasized the importance of balance and fairness, evaluating sources, internet censorship, citizen journalism around the world, the impact of social media, and more. Then by teaching it to younger kids, the students learn better themselves.

Note: The program focused on finding a middle ground between championing journalism’s goals and successes, and dwelling endlessly on our errors and doom-and-gloom challenges. Teaching young people that all media is suspect, that journalism is dead and everyone online is awful does not help foster the next generation’s ability to navigate the media landscape or build a better one.

Or, as one speaker put it, a critical look at mass media should not turn into a conspiracy-theory cynicism that serves only to further tear down the profession and the industry.

• An examination of automated journalism in China. There have been previous studies of this, but focused only on such news in English. What is automated journalism? Apparently, news stories that are aggregated by algorithm, with no humans involved.

This is a beast heretofore unknown to me. The creation of aggregate stories alone was a bit of a shock to me a few years ago, when it tore down the age-old prohibitions on citing and linking our competitors’ work by compiling “stories” with links and citations to other news organizations. But at least those stories still have a living, trained journalist doing the compiling and evaluating the sources’ veracity. This is the closest thing I’ve seen yet to replacing journalists with robots. 

It’s safe to say I’m not a fan.

Fortunately, the study found that readability and expertise rated higher for human-written news than automated, although for some reason readers rated credibility marginally lower for humans than machines. If you want to read more about Robby the Robot Journalist, Emerj did a piece on news by A.I. in January. 

• Research on health podcasts found that doctors and people who have been personally diagnosed with an illness carried much higher credibility with podcast listeners than hearing the same information from a podcast host who did not have medical credentials. It also had a higher impact on health behaviors, and a higher interest in downloading and following the podcast in the future.

Another podcast study focused on commercials: the average is 5.1 commercials per podcast in the top 100 iTunes-distributed podcasts, up from 2.4 a decade ago. About 31 percent were sponsorships, and 87 percent directly or indirectly related to the subject of the podcast. 

• This one will not please my teenage son: While 71 percent of Americans age 18-24 are habitual Instagram users, as much as 25 percent would qualify as “problematic users.” Social media addiction is a real, trackable thing, folks. 

The addictive gratifications of compulsive Instagram use rival those obtained by food, sleep and sex, though they do not have a classification as a mental disorder (yet). They defined it as a state of unconscious activity, of compulsive use with multiple gratifications. I am probably mangling this definition, but it was an interesting study. 

• In popular culture, there were examinations of Mad Men as a paradoxical feminist text, the portrayal of bisexuality on CW shows, the representation of Asian Indians in American film over the last 10 years, and the Kardashians’ impact on awareness of the Armenian genocide.

Don’t laugh. I didn’t know either, but they’re an Armenian episode and have apparently made a significant impact in advocacy for genocide victims and awareness of Armenian culture in exile. Who knew?

Also, the average CW viewer watches eight hours of TV a day. When do they work or sleep? 

My colleague Rahul Menon did the Indian film study, and found an increasing number of positive portrayals of Asian Indians as hardworking, funny and helpful, though still fewer than half are actually portrayed by Indian actors. 

Finally, there was a study on the impact that popular culture can have on people’s perceptions of mental illness. Specifically, they studied Batman and Beyonce, focusing on an article about Beyonce’s struggle with depression and Batman knocking the hell out of someone who said bad things about someone with mental illness. I’m paraphrasing, because this is already a long blog post, but it was an interesting study from the University of Missouri. 

The answer is: yes, it makes a difference – but the study itself didn’t quite bear that out. Popular culture changes opinions, which sounds like a DUH, but in academia you need research and statistics to back up the things that should seem obvious, because sometimes it’s not. The “parasocial relationship,” which is academic-speak for our ability to identify with a fictional character, is key to whether the popular culture icon can shift personal opinion in real life. In short, mental health stigma can be reduced if it is responsibly discussed in media, but the message and the media matter.

Also: More than 80 percent of the audience was familiar with Beyonce. Only 69 percent were familiar with Batman. What?

This is a quick-and-dirty rundown on two days of research discussion, and apologies if I have mangled anyone’s research. I was honored to be there with my little study on journalists’ portrayal in film, and gained some ideas and feedback for my continuing research as I proceed into … wait for it … my thesis. But more on that next year!

We did find time to hit the local bar. We’re college students, after all.

Note: I visited the Oklahoma City National Memorial while I was in town. A narration and photo array will be pending on the Patreon.

The People Have a Right to Know

I’m happy and terrified to announce that last semester’s research project has been selected for presentation at the Association for Education in Journalism and Mass Communication’s midwinter conference.

That’s a lot of edu-speak to say that I wrote some stuff people liked, and now I’m flying to Oklahoma City to talk about it.

Last semester’s primary project was a research paper titled “The People Have a Right to Know: Journalism and Ethics in Film.” In part it was a test run for my thesis, which will expand greatly from the initial sample to examine several tropes that affect journalists’ representation in the movies. It focused primarily on ten films featuring journalists from the last five years, but also extended into several films from previous eras that highlight some of the most common depictions of journalists.

My research poster. Not sure how I’m getting that on the plane.

I analyzed the films through the lens of the SPJ Code of Ethics. If you know me at all, you know that I am passionate about the Code. We denizens of the SPJ Ethics Committee spend a great deal of time year-round advocating ethical behavior, promoting awareness and use of the Code and assisting journalists with ethical dilemmas. My primary soapbox for all these years has been that journalism ethics is not some dry academic theoretical discussion, but a living necessity that should be part of every newsroom’s daily discussion and the only part of your J-school education guaranteed to be relevant throughout your entire career.

Many papers and research projects have focused on the representation of the news media in film, but I am not aware of any others that have used the SPJ Code of Ethics to analyze the fictional journalists’ behavior. Apparently this caught the eye of the committee at AEJMC, and I have been invited to present my research to them.

Thus the terror. I have only presented once before at an academic conference: in 2016, I spoke at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity about the 2014 project to rewrite the Code for the 21st century. All my other speaking engagements have been much less formal: trade conferences, universities, pop-culture conventions, book groups.

However, since my ultimate goal is to continue teaching, this is an enormous opportunity, and quite an honor.

Oklahoma, here I come…

Patreon changes!

Any new venture is a work in progress, and you have to double or quadruple that when you’re managing a creative endeavor.

The Patreon has become a major part of my work, and like others who have launched one, I’ve found it creatively stimulating. I find I am actively seeking out subjects about which to write, photos and travelogues to create, specifically because I think it will interest the Patrons.

That’s to say nothing about the importance of that income for my family. As you all know, we are a party of three, all in college, and surviving on one paycheck plus whatever I can scrape together.

With that in mind, I decided to rework the structure of the Patreon rewards. I wanted to give more content at the lower price points, because they’ve stuck with me and they should get more for their dollars. I have also created a firm deadline structure for the Patreon, so the posts will be timed more regularly and it won’t necessarily fall by the wayside when my classwork gets insane.

The revised rewards for the Patreon will be as follows:

• $1 per month: Thank you! Your name will be listed on my website as one of my wonderful Patrons; no contribution is too small. You will receive access to exclusive weekly blog posts, which may be on any number of subjects ranging from writing to journalism to grad school.

• $3 per month: You will receive access to at least one photo post from my various photo shoots, along with stories or travelogues about the shoot, location and history, in addition to previous rewards.

• $5 per month: You will receive one short story or nonfiction essay per month, in addition to previous rewards.

• $10 per month: I will critique up to 1,500 words of your fiction or nonfiction per quarter, in addition to previous rewards.

• $25 per month: You’re famous! With your permission, I will put your name in a pool for “Tuckerization” – as in, I will name a character after you in an upcoming work! Plus all previous rewards, of course.

• $50 per month: You will receive an annual ebook of my essays and short stories, as well as a thank-you listing in the author’s note of my published novels, and all previous rewards.

• $100 per month: You’re my best friend. You’ll get a print chapbook once a year on the month of my birthday (or a paperback, depending on what’s been published most recently), a critique of up to 4,000 words of your fiction or nonfiction once a quarter, and all previous rewards.

At each level, existing Patrons should be receiving more content than they had before. And if you have not chosen to join the Patreon so far, I hope you will consider it.

This is going to be a tough semester – I’m taking three graduate-level courses as well as teaching one, and that’s a lot of work. The good news is that more of that work will feed into my interests, and thus may start showing up here and on the Patreon. I am taking a class in cultural studies in media, and another in creative nonfiction. It’s safe to say this is going to bleed over into this work!

As I said back in July, I sing for my supper. The support of my Patrons helps me to feed my family, and they deserve to get what they pay for. Thank you for your support – none of what I do is possible without you.

A poetical experiment

They already warned me it won’t work. I hope they’re wrong.

I’ve always wanted to play with Magnetic Poetry, those funky word-magnets that have remained popular long past the deaths of similar fads. I’m a words person by trade, and the idea of jumbling up random words to form beauty appeals to me.

Problem: My fridge is taken. It’s been our family tradition since before we were a family to buy a magnet whenever we go somewhere or do something fun, and thus the vast majority of the fridge surface is covered with magnets ranging from St. Louis to Jamaica to Disney World to San Francisco to Baltimore to … you get the picture. And there’s really no other surface in the house with enough metal to do Magnetic Poetry.

Surprise. My office door at the university is METAL.

I received two packs of Magnetic Poetry for Christmas: “Photography” and “Nasty Woman.” (Both from my darling husband, who knows me much too well.) I had won a “Coffee” pack a year or two ago, still in the box as I hunted for metal surfaces.

So the menfolk and I trooped over to the campus this week, and now my office door has WORDS. (Along with my shiny new kettle and French press, because COFFEE.) On both sides of the door!

First guest poet. 

They already warned me. Someone’s tried to do this before, and the students put awful stuff all over the door and they made the professor take it down. I did remove the word “pussy” from the “Nasty Woman” kit, if only because some will consider it offensive and others will use it as an excuse to put up nastiness. We have enough of that on the internet, don’t we?

A little negative, but I couldn’t help it… geddit? NEGATIVE? ….sigh.

My hallway is in the lower basement, adjacent to the radio station and the music department with a few IT techs. They seem like friendly, nice kids, and tend to wave and say hi as they pass my open door. (At first, it was a series of double-takes, since no one knew that there was actually an office in there. “I thought this was storage,” said one building service worker.)

I’m interested to see what poetical arrangements might appear on my door. I have mixtures on both sides, and if I can scrounge together a few more bucks, I might add the “College” and “Book Lover” kits, which will probably succeed in covering both sides of the door completely.

I still need to leave my drop box… 

I’m sure someone might put something nasty on it, and I’ll break that up as I need to. Someone might even steal my words. Jim was unhappy with that idea. He bought them as a gift, after all.

But this is a school with a tradition of friendly self-expression. The Rock stands in the center of the quad, and has been painted over time and time again as someone has something they want to declare. (An actual rock, not Duane Johnson, though he’s welcome to drop by anytime.) Fraternity symbols are popular, along with organizations and causes and the occasional sad RIP. And yes, they’ve had a moment or two of unpleasantness on the Rock, which is quickly painted over and excoriated by the campus community.

What will the passers-by leave on my door? What funky phrases might I find in a moment of meditation? Beauty or meanness? Juvenile humor or moments of clarity?

We shall see.

This one is from the Boy. Did I mention I’m really proud of him?

The Beast vs. Brad Admire

Brad Admire is dead. I never met him.

Brad was 17 years old when he was injured playing high school sports. He had surgery on his shoulder, and the doctors gave him opiate-based pain pills during his recovery.

You probably know where this story is going.

Four years later, I interviewed Brad’s father, Dave Admire. I was doing a project on the heroin epidemic, and finding out more and more that it was inextricably tied to the massive use of opiate-based pain pills. There’s a lot of debate and more than a little shouting on this issue, and this is not the place for that debate. I’m here to tell you about Brad, and his father.

Within weeks of his surgery, Brad was hooked on Vicodin. When the prescriptions went away, he turned to heroin, buying tabs on the street for $10 a pill. Admire told me that the majority of addicts he worked with started that way: pain pills for dental surgery or a broken bone. “Not too many just decided to try heroin,” he said.

Three months later, Brad told his father he had a problem. Dave had him in treatment the very next day.

It didn’t take. By the time I met Dave, his son had been through five or six rounds of treatment, a six-month incarceration and at least three overdoses that he knew of. In one of those cases, Dave told me, Brad’s “friends” had stolen his wallet and dumped him in an emergency room.

In Illinois, an addict is lucky to get 30 days inpatient treatment, which apparently isn’t enough for a beast with as many tentacles as heroin.

I didn’t interview Brad. At the time that I met him, Dave had shipped Brad to Florida where he could get a 60-day program, followed by two months outpatient in a sober living house. “Today he’s good, but you never know what tomorrow will bring,” he said.

The doctors say one of the worst things for an addict is get distracted from their recovery with a lot of pressure about “How’s it going? When do you think you’ll be out?” In other words, everything a reporter might ask. It wasn’t my first round with this issue; in other stories, I’ve been faced with the dilemma of whether to interview someone who might be seriously damaged by it. In the case of a legislator who entered Betty Ford for addiction, I had to argue down an editor who was absolutely sure I could get him on the phone from rehab.

Maybe I could. Maybe not – Betty Ford is pretty tough on their rules. But the ethical precept of “minimize harm” as established in the Code of Ethics means that I don’t hurt people to get a story.

Dave Admire, 2016

So I interviewed Dave instead, who was brutally honest about the pain his family had gone through. Addicts leave a wake of pain in their path, not the least of it around themselves.

Dave told me one day he had to refuse Brad entry to the house. “It was snowing and he was beating on the door, and I had to tell him no,” Dave said. “I had to force him to the rock bottom.” As a parent, I could not possibly imagine doing that, but they say it’s necessary. Addicts need a reason to get clean, and they destroy every relationship around them before they reach that rock bottom, or so the experts say. How many parents and siblings have had to make that choice, to “love them from a distance,” as Dave put it?

Dave made it his mission to help other families navigate the morass of treatment options, with and without insurance. Somehow word spread and people knew he was the guy to call. He told me he had kids on eight-week waiting lists, kids who were slipped a tab at a party, and suddenly there’s a beastly hunger awake and raving through their blood. That’s perhaps hyperbole, and perhaps not, as the endless hearings and workshops and think tanks I’ve observed over the years talk about neurons and receptors and susceptibility to dependence in the human brain, stewing in its mix of chemicals.

It was Dave who came to mind a year later when my son sustained a minor injury on a camping trip. He came home from the ER with a bottle of narcotics. The doctors gave opioids to a sixteen-year-old kid with a minor muscle strain without even trying aspirin first. I couldn’t get those pills away from him fast enough, afraid of the beast. We were lucky.

Dave and Brad were featured in a documentary called “The Heroin Project,” co-produced by my now-colleague Cory Byers and then-grad student Ashley Seering. Dave was working with law enforcement to find ways to help addicts get into treatment instead of prison. He appeared on a panel with U.S. Sen. Dick Durbin – which is how he came to my attention – and talked with raw honesty about the impact the epidemic is having on families.

Dave (left) with Sen. Durbin

There were a lot of politicians and officials on that panel, but then there was Dave, speaking with quiet dignity; and a local principal, Kari Karidis, who spoke about the day she got the worst possible call: her son had died of a heroin overdose.

One of the hardest things a journalist must learn, and which I try to teach my students, is the compartmentalization of emotions and opinions. Reporters cannot help but form opinions because we have working brain cells, and if we ever stop feeling our emotions entirely, we have lost our connection to humanity and need to quit the job. But we must take those emotions and opinions and set them apart from the work. There’s a story to be written, and no one will take it seriously if you’ve slipped from reporter to advocate.

But when I read yesterday that Brad Admire died of an overdose on Sunday, my heart simply broke for the father I interviewed years ago, and the family ripped apart over what seemed like innocuous pills. I never did have enough callouses to keep me from feeling the job, and maybe that made me less than the reporter I could have been.

When I wrote the story of the Admire family, Madison County, Illinois had reached a then-staggering 77 opioid overdoses in a single year. In 2009, the total was seven.

Days before Brad Admire overdosed, Madison County’s coroner Steve Nonn announced that with more than month remaining in 2018, 92 people have died of an opiate overdose. It’s a grim new record. While there have always been overdoses, take a look at the chart at the other end of this link and you’ll see why opioids stand out. More than 72,000 dead last year, and now that fentanyl is being mixed into other drugs, there seems to be no end in sight.

There’s no moral to the story, no uplifting ending. As a journalist, it isn’t my place to suggest policy or issue a call to action. It probably isn’t my place to grieve for the Admire family, to think of the stalwart father who sat across from me in a library one afternoon and shared his family’s most painful, raw tragedies with me and our readers.

But as keepers of the record, it’s beholden upon us to tell the whole story. And the whole story is that this time, the beast won.

Flashback: Happy Birthday, Uncle Walter

Note: This post was originally published on Nov. 6, 2016.

This weekend I had the privilege of speaking at the Walter Cronkite Conference on Media Ethics and Integrity. I was pretty nervous, as I’d never done an academic conference before – SPJ conventions, guest speaker at local universities, and of course, cons. No one at the Cronkite Conference was dressed as Pennywise the Clown, however.

Somehow I missed that the conference was scheduled to coincide with Cronkite’s 100th birthday, which was celebrated at the Walter Cronkite Memorial on Friday along with the unveiling of Phase IV of the memorial.

We were treated to an amazing three-act play developed by the memorial staff titled “And That’s the Way It Is: Cronkite’s Journey.” This show has been taken on the road and performed all the way to D.C. If it is ever in your area, you owe it to yourself to catch it. Actor Jim Korinke does a spot-on Walter Cronkite, and the gentlemen playing Harry Truman and Martin Luther King Jr. are pretty amazing themselves.

Act One focuses on Truman and Cronkite’s lives in parallel from 1945 onward. It is a little gentler on Truman than history has been, but more true than some of the biopics have been. Act Two focuses on King and Cronkite through the civil rights movement, including the ethical and practical issues faced by the CBS news team as they tried to cover the movement with dispassion. I did not know, for example, that simply covering the movement was seen as “championing the blacks” and that southern affiliates threatened to cut their affiliation with CBS – which would have bankrupted the network.

Unfortunately I missed most of Act III. Damn news. I was reporting on a story back home by remote, and got some information during the intermission. I was still updating the story from my laptop when Act III began, and once I was done, the doors were locked and I couldn’t get in until someone came along who had a key. Rats. Jim (who was verklempt throughout the performance) reports that it was a representative of Cronkite’s question-and-answer on Larry King Live on the one-year anniversary of 9/11. I would have liked to have seen that.

I only caught some of the presentations at the conference, but those I caught were fascinating. Check out the Twitter account @edonaldmedia if you want more specifics. I met a journalist named Deandre Williamson of the Bahamas, who won the award for having traveled the farthest (unless it’s farther to Chile? Maybe.). Williamson discussed the evolution of the media in the Bahamas, which does not have freedom of speech, and its recent adoption of the SPJ Code of Ethics a few months ago. It faces an uphill battle there, and I enjoyed discussing those issues with Deandre.

Pic taken by my long-suffering husband, who agreed to come to a journalism ethics conference on our anniversary.

My presentation was on the 2014 revision of the code, and it must have gone off well, since no one fell asleep, walked out, or threw rotten tomatoes. Big thanks go to ethics chairman Andrew Seaman for giving me his terrific PowerPoint, which I then adapted to my speech. The last time I used PowerPoint, I was in college. That was a while ago. Thanks to the Kansas City Press Club, which invited me to speak.

And thanks as well to former chairman Kevin Smith, who shared some of his thoughts and recollections with me as I prepared for the presentation. Kevin herded the cats through our entire process, and survived.

I’ve often said that my participation in the ethics commission and the small part I played in rewriting the code are among my proudest accomplishments, and thus it was no small thing to be asked to talk about it – here at the conference, at local universities, at SPJ conventions, at high schools, on a milk crate at a street corner. Kevin called it “spreading the Gospel”; I’ve sometimes called it “evangelizing ethics.” As I said in the speech, there are far too many people who don’t even realize the code exists, and that’s because we do a lousy job of transparency in our work. We must stop expecting that the average reader knows how a newsroom functions, how news corporations work on the inside, about the difference between news and opinion, and the presence and enforcement of ethics codes.

Sometimes I’ve felt like the lone voice crying in the wilderness. This weekend I was among My People, and it felt wonderful. It was good to know I am not the only one who is disheartened and depressed by the vitriol we face as we try to do our jobs.

I learned a lot from my fellow journalists this weekend, and about Uncle Walt, whom I thought I already knew well. Cronkite retired before I was old enough to really comprehend the news, but when I was young and would hear my newsman father refer to “Uncle Walter,” I thought at first we really had an uncle named Walter.

Dad was a big fan of Cronkite, and after you visit the memorial, you will be as well. From World War II to the Kennedy Assassination to the civil rights movement to the moon landing to facing down Spiro Agnew, the story of Cronkite is really the history of us for the last sixty years, and it’s worth your time.

If you do, you get to wear The Glasses.

And that’s the way it is.