For series on mental illness, lack of data becomes part of the story

Published on
January 20, 2016

When I started reporting my 2015 California Health Journalism Fellowship series on mental illness in Shasta County, I knew it wasn’t just going to be any old enterprise piece. We don’t have a mental health beat, and since the Record Searchlight has a very small newsroom to begin with, the topic just doesn’t get as much attention as it probably should. I also knew my editors had been itching for a big piece on mental health, since it’s an issue that repeatedly comes up in the community. We knew something wasn’t working, but what I had to find out was what and why.

Now I’ve learned the answers to those questions — and quite a bit about journalism in the process. Here are some of the lessons I’ve learned:

When reporting on mental health, let the lack of data be the story — or at least your nut graph

I had this looming feeling going into my series that I was due for some frustrating conversations about data — both with my editors and with the government agencies I predicted wouldn’t have any.

For one, there is no reliable statistic on how many people suffer from mental illness anywhere — even from the most reputable national organizations. They’re mere guesses. Two, if you live in a smaller metro area like mine, data is not the easiest thing to come by.

When I turned in the installment of my series on crime and mental illness, I felt uneasy about the fact that there was almost no data driving it. My first installment on the provider shortage in the county, on the other hand, involved extensive federal data analysis. Sometimes in this industry, I feel like we’re so primed for data that there’s an implicit message that no data equals no story. But I trusted my instincts and made the fact that there is no data on the problem — and no direct effort to get it — the nut graph. I was pleasantly surprised when my editor accepted it rather than handing me back a red-ink-splashed paper with a demand for public records requests.

That’s not to say you shouldn’t take those measures if you’re fairly certain the data is out there, just not in a format that’s easy to synthesize or that a government agency is dying to share. But in some cases, such as mental illness, the data would only show a small sampling of the problem in the first place. If you get numbers on how many people are on a psychiatric medication (which I did get for jail inmates), how do you find out how many people are genuinely ill, but untreated? There’s never a way to know for sure, but what I realized with this series is that at least letting the public know whether there’s an effort underway to get better estimates is valid.

Remember that people might actually want to talk to you about sensitive issues.

When reporting on potentially embarrassing or just scary topics, it’s easy to feel like a pest who’s only going to annoy or offend people before having your interview requests rejected.

“People won’t want to talk to you; or they will, but won’t want to be identified; or they’ll talk, but only because they feel obligated, but otherwise are worse off for having met you and told you a story they were uncomfortable sharing.” Those are just some of the predictions I had going into this series. And my situation was only made worse by the pressure I felt to find those very human stories I knew would make the series infinitely better but I told myself I was unlikely to come by. 

But if you use your people-reading skills, and make clear what you’re writing about and why it’s important, you’ll find sources who are willing to talk. What I found — and this is something I’ve always suspected as a reporter, but really confirmed through this series — is that, in many cases, people do want to talk to a journalist, even about sensitive issues like their mental illness, or a loved one’s criminal history. Most, if not all, of the people I encountered seemed to realize that telling me their dark stories can lead to the change we as journalists are trying to effect.

As for the ones you can tell are uncomfortable, even after you’ve explained why it could be a good idea to share their story? Just move on to someone else and save them and yourself the strife. The people who genuinely want to talk are out there; you just have to be persistent in finding them.

Be willing to cut interviews.

Another lesson: as tough as it may be, you need to be willing to scrap quotes, information or even entire interviews.

This is something I already knew but that really became clear to me through this series. Sure, there have been plenty of times when I’ve agonized over but eventually left out a great quote that just didn’t quite fit the flow of a story. But almost never have I scrapped an entire interview.

You might feel bad taking someone’s time and having them share personal information with you that doesn’t end up in the final cut. But ultimately, you’re doing everyone a disservice if you include a quote out of pity that just makes the change you’re trying to effect more elusive because people get confused or lose interest in reading further.

Don’t be afraid to let your subjects carry the story.

Most of the lessons I learned through this series are about the overall reporting process, but there was one that really stood out to me about writing: When covering a very human-based issue such as homelessness, it’s OK to let your subjects be the story and then weave in data and expert interviews throughout, rather than the other way around.

I’ve always known that people are what make a story great, but it seems most of my pieces still end up with more space dedicated to experts, with just an anecdotal lead and a few quotes splashed throughout from the people most affected by whatever the issue may be.

But with my story on mental illness and homelessness, I decided to make it essentially a series of vignettes about homeless mentally ill people after I went on a day-long “walk-along” with a medical outreach team. I saw firsthand so many great anecdotes that practically told the story for me. It was the ultimate example of the principle “Show, don't tell.”

After that installment ran, I got several comments from readers to the effect of, “I actually read the whole thing,” implying they often just skim through long Sunday stories. While I can’t know for sure, I think the direct effort at making my story both compelling and easy to read was behind that.

If you're writing about a lack of resources, at least direct people to the resources that are there.

Our social media guru had the idea of creating a RebelMouse page full of resources and other things related to the series, and as of early December — before my third installment even ran — it had received 14,000 views. You can check it out here.

Hold your local leaders accountable in a way that’s easy for people to reference.

Obviously, when you’re writing about a significant problem in your community, you want to find out whether your local leaders plan to do anything about it. But the more people you ask, the more an otherwise compelling story can get bogged down. And if someone isn’t a fan of really long stories in the first place, they may not even get to the “leaders propose their solutions” section. 
My way around both of those problems was interviewing just about every local leader I could get a hold of and putting it all into one cut-and-dry “Here are the proposed solutions from local officials” sidebar.

It may be artless, but not only did I fit more leaders’ interviews in without weighing down the main story, I believe people who are interested in mental health and want to find out what their local officials have to say about it will more easily be able to find their responses in the future.