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 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:
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.
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.
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.
The Illinois Associated Press Media Editors gave a second-place award to “The day a Belleville man shot a congressman,” part of the day-one package our team put together in response to James Hodgkinson’s shootout with police at the Congressional baseball practice last year.
I was proud to be part of that team, working primarily on the background story about Hodgkinson’s political activism in our region. It was an incredibly difficult and fast-paced story, and nearly everyone in the newsroom was working on some aspect of it. We later joked that if you weren’t on the Hodgkinson case, you must have been out of town. (This was not as much of a joke as you might think.)
I have to say, I really couldn’t imagine any breaking story that could possibly have beaten it, and not just because it was our team on the ground. It went to the Arlington Daily Herald for “Hours of Torture,” which told of a young man with mental problems who was brought to Chicago and tortured for hours in an apartment. Twenty-eight minutes of that was shared live on Facebook.
There was much fine work celebrated, including several more for the News-Democrat. Check out the full list here.