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An amateur’s guide to taking on a complicated reporting project

Craft: Lessons From The Field

An amateur’s guide to taking on a complicated reporting project

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(Photo by Ken Chuang via Pixabay)
(Photo by Ken Chuang via Pixabay)

In March of 2021, I produced a one-hour talk show for Forum at KQED on the state of kids’ mental health in the second year of the pandemic. I kept thinking about that show for months afterward. I thought about parents whose children had ended their lives and the kids who are tormented by their classmates. And then there were the news stories using the term “crisis” and quoting alarming statistics.

I’m a parent and a journalist. Those stories and stats scared me. I wanted to find out why everyone kept talking about the crisis, but there wasn’t much reporting on what was being done to address it. Much of the coverage I saw seemed to portray the identification of trauma as a way to induce change — as if just hearing about kids struggling would be enough to make adults take action. I was concerned that society was becoming desensitized to the plight of kids at a systemic level. 

That was the impetus for a story I started working on in March 2022 before I even heard about the Center for Health Journalism fellowship programs. I thought I could spend a couple of weeks reporting to put together an in-depth enterprise piece. But, I quickly realized I was gathering way more material than would fit in a single story. And then I heard about the California Fellowship and jumped at the chance to delve into how to improve access to mental resources for kids. 

I continued my regular job at KQED producing a daily talk show while taking one day a week for about four months to focus on the project. That helped me make consistent progress, but it was challenging to mentally shift from one role to the other. This project marks the first series I’ve ever tackled in my nearly two decades of journalism experience, so I knew I would be in for a major learning curve. Here are some of the lessons I’m taking away: 

  • Decide on your audience and focus on them: I knew I wanted to produce work that would make parents feel empowered after reading or listening to the pieces, so I focused on finding sources that would show how they overcame or managed mental health struggles. But my intent was also to explain how many kids don’t get the help they need. I did tons of reporting on policy and data to make sure I understood the disconnect, but I wasn’t writing for a policy or lawmaker audience. I read many other well-done pieces on youth mental health during my time researching my project. Many of my sources told me this was such a big topic that “no one talks about,” but I found that wasn’t exactly true. Lots of people are talking about it, but I knew there was a space to bring a different kind of story to my audience. I wanted parents and caregivers to feel seen, and for other readers and listeners to feel like they came away with a new understanding.

  • It’s OK to drift from your original premise, but figure out how to return to it: Like many reporters, I gathered far more information, quotes and anecdotes than I could possibly use in three stories. I centered my stories around main characters and how their experiences reflected broader trends or problems. One story followed a provider who demonstrated how challenging it is for professionals of color to thrive in the mental health field despite the growing demand for them. Focusing on individual people helped, but also decided on what was the bigger truth I wanted to tell. As investigative journalist Ken Armstrong advises, “Don’t tiptoe” in writing investigative pieces. Readers need you to make the connections from your reporting, and so you should state it boldly. I also spent time researching how to write better nut graphs, which also helped with understanding what I was trying to say with each story in my series.  

  • Treat people’s stories with immense care: I found a few sources were very generous with their stories and time. But again, I had to make decisions about what was important to include or leave out and still provide a compelling story. For one of my stories that involved a child questioning their gender, we brought in an editorial consultant who advised that we take out any reference to gender to avoid any potential harm to the child. Part of me felt like I was editing out an important facet of the family’s story — and like I was withholding from the audience. But, I also wanted to err on the side of caution, so I worked with my editors to restructure the story, which leads to my next tip.

  • Plan for speed bumps and detours: Like many fellows, I set up a timeline and mini-deadlines along the way to manage my time during the fellowship. Time management is different when working on a project, however. I wrote dozens of in-depth stories under tight deadlines in my career, but usually the turnaround was a few weeks. In this case, I spent months writing and rewriting drafts. I wrote many long passages and even a whole draft I later dumped. The writing and editing process took far longer than I had anticipated, so my advice is to budget double or triple the amount of time for revisions and edits than you think you need. I was able to secure more days away from my regular work near the end of the fellowship, but I would advise blocking out at least a week or two on the home stretch. 

Learning while doing doesn’t feel good: I live in the Bay Area – origin of many Silicon Valley platitudes such as “embrace failure.” That advice sounds empowering in that it implies that failure is part of the journey to success and therefore you should feel good about it. Well, I felt like a failure when I had to change the narrative of one of my stories, when my writing was taking longer than I thought, and when I thought I wasn’t doing justice to such an important topic. Again, I knew that doing this project would involve some growing pains, but the pain was worse than I imagined. I ugly cried during the last Zoom gathering I had with my fellowship cohort when asked, “How are things going?” I was mortified that I put my emotions on display in a work setting, but I realized later that I needed to release pent-up frustration. I’m always looking to grow and evolve as a journalist, but I was reminded that growth hurts when it’s happening.

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