How to produce journalism that changes hearts, minds and laws
Journalist Rebecca Lindstrom was drawn to the word a Georgia mother used on a blog describing her daughter’s plight: “Keeping Kayleigh.” The page documented just how hard it was for families to keep their children with mental and developmental disorders, and how often desperate parents abandoned their kids in hopes the state would provide the services they needed.
“These were families that were not only trying to keep their children, but they were trying to keep them safe,” she told an audience of the USC Center for Health Journalism 2023 National Fellows last week. “They were, in many cases, trying to keep them alive.”
The interview with Kayleigh’s mom inspired #Keeping, the name for Lindstrom’s award-winning series for 11Alive The Reveal. Honored with an Alfred I. duPont-Columbia University Award, broadcast journalism’s highest honor, the series explored the gaps in Georgia’s mental health care system that pushed families to make the agonizing choice to surrender their children to state custody. The project helped fuel efforts to pass landmark mental health reform legislation that could reduce child abandonment.
Lindstrom’s project, which she reported with support and skills training providing by the CHJ Data Fellowship, is an excellent example of journalism that incorporates powerful narratives, unassailable data, and engagement, said Michelle Levander, the director of the Center for Health Journalism. Those three ingredients offer a useful recipe for journalists seeking to generate change in their own communities. Levander joined Lindstrom to share tips and strategies that define the Center’s “Impact Reporting” model as this year’s National Fellows embark on their own projects.
From the outset, consider impact
When considering a story topic, Lindstrom advised reporters to identify the desired change. Once that’s clear, it’s easier to determine which players need to be on board to generate those actions.
Lindstrom wanted to identify and address the gaps in Georgia’s mental and behavioral health care system and their devastating effects on families. Many parents, who were frustrated with the lack of comprehensive health care case management, and a host of other lacking supports in a state with one of the lowest levels of investment in mental health in the nation, would give up their children to state custody in the hopes they would receive more comprehensive care — and in hopes that the government would pay the bills, the series explains.
In one case, a single working mom couldn’t handle the care of her 17-year-old son with autism, who tried to injure himself. Even though he qualified for behavioral health care, she couldn’t find a therapist to work with him. Some families encountered long waitlists while others grappled with insurance coverage that didn’t offer sufficient mental and behavioral health benefits.
Filling in the gaps in care, access and coverage required regulatory action and financial investments, both of which relied on the Georgia Legislature. In a state that had chosen not to expand Medicaid, Lindstrom knew that bolstering mental health care services and capacities would be a tough sell.
She considered what kind of approach would resonate with lawmakers, settling on concepts like “inefficient systems” and “wasting taxpayer money.” She also knew that legislators wanted to quantify a problem with facts and figures, as she shared in a CHJ case study on the project’s impact.
Lindstrom’s participation in the Data Fellowship helped her to quantify the scale of the problem. Lindstrom reported that, over a five-year period, “1,268 Georgia children were abandoned or surrendered due to a parent's inability to cope or the child's behavior.” She also looked into the high cost that comes from inefficient systems and a lack of connected care.
Along with solid data, the series used powerful narratives to help people understand the situation’s complexity in a way that fostered compassion.
“I mean, who on Earth abandons their kid?” she said. “You know, you stick it out, you fight it. And so I knew that we were going to have to get through some misconceptions.”
In Kayleigh’s story, single mom Christina Henry shared the struggles of caring for a child diagnosed with an intellectual disability, mitochondrial disorder, leaky gut, Oppositional Defiant Disorder, ADHD and PTSD. Kayleigh threw things, tried to get out of a running car, ran away, and tried to kill herself.
Georgia’s Medicaid program only covered certain behavioral therapies if she had a diagnosis of ed autism, which she didn’t — at least not at the time. She was on a waitlist for testing, underscoring the additional access challenges. Meanwhile, supervision help wasn’t covered since her intellectual disability wasn’t considered severe enough. Henry felt she had no choice but to surrender custody of Kayleigh to the state.
Empowering families, spurring legislation
Every time Lindstrom published a story, she sent an email to sources with a link to the piece, even if those individuals didn’t appear in it. She thanked them for taking the time to talk and explained how those conversations would shape her ongoing coverage.
As Lindstrom’s reporting continued, an unexpected community impact emerged: People who had shared their stories realized they weren’t alone. Parents who had long felt worn down and disenfranchised started engaging, gaining confidence that their experiences mattered, she said. And they came to realize that their circumstances were due to systemic obstacles not their own parenting.
The series also caught the attention of state decision makers. Policy makers were taking the stories into legislative meetings and asking questions about the problems Lindstrom had reported. By the time the legislative session began, key leaders had decided to address the issue — commitments Lindstrom ensured were on the record.
Meanwhile, Lindstrom sent her findings to other lawmakers and asked if they would be supporting legislation. The series’ web site included a tracker for all related legislation and legislators’ positions. (The site clarified that it wasn’t endorsing any of the measures, she noted.) In April 2022, Georgia Gov. Brian P. Kemp signed the Mental Health Parity Act, which strengthens mental and behavioral health benefits and includes additional measures to improve access. The new law and related legislation include additional investments of $250 million a year. The funding will pay for programs to address the state’s shortage of mental health workers, increase law enforcement training on crisis intervention, and prevent youth from cycling in and out of treatment facilities.
Lindstrom urged the CHJ fellows to stay focused on their core reporting topic. As reporting progresses it’s easy to get sidetracked and shift coverage to related topics.
“If you don't stay on the one that you're doing, you'll lose sight of what you're doing and why you're doing it,” she said. “We had to stay focused so that we could keep beating that same drum.”
More strategies for creating impactful reporting
Levander shared additional examples of CHJ projects that generated new policies, laws and community conversations.
- One great example of powerful narratives comes from Barbara Laker and Wendy Ruderman’s series “Toxic City,” which was published in the Philadelphia Inquirer and was a Pulitzer finalist. That series, which described how children were being poisoned by lead paint and other toxins, resulted in millions in funding to repair toxic hazards in schools as well as changes in clean-up rule enforcement.
- Investigative journalist and former CHJ National Health Fellow Bob Ortega’s investigation on safe car seat use examined how Latino and Native American children were disproportionately killed and injured in vehicle accidents across Arizona, largely a result of missing or improperly installed car seats. The series, coupled with an engagement campaign led by Ortega involving Spanish-language TV, the Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, hospitals, fire departments, the local Catholic diocese, and hospitals, published in The Arizona Republic. The stories and the engagement effort – stellar examples of the Center’s Impact Reporting Model, , spurred the creation of a community coalition and additional state funding for car seat safety. And in succeeding years, car seat injuries and deaths declined.
Even though reporters may think an investigative project needs to cover new territory, Levander said, that’s a misconception. Journalists can evaluate how systems are supposed to work and compare it to reality.
“A lot of the most powerful stories that we've seen fellows do are not about new things,” Levander said. “They're about things that have just become part of the background because people are used to them and there's a kind of complacency. Your stories can shake things up.”