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Meg Kissinger on writing the tough stories

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Our February Editors’ Roundtable tackled “The law creates barriers to getting care for the mentally ill,” a story by Meg Kissinger of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. Addressing the difficult question of “imminent danger” and the mentally ill, Kissinger looked at a recent murder by a schizophrenic man whose parents had tried, unsuccessfully, to get him committed. Her story also introduced readers to Alberta Lessard, a local woman whose legal battle reset the standards for commitment decades ago.

In 2009, Kissinger and fellow Journal Sentinel reporter Susanne Rust were Pulitzer finalists for investigative reporting with their stories on the failures of the federal government to regulate household chemicals. Their work won the Polk Award, the Oakes Award and two National Journalism Awards.

Kissinger talked with us by phone last week about reporting on highly contested issues, getting readers to care, and the haunting events that became a key part of her story. The following are excerpts from our conversation.

You address the sweep of involuntary treatment or commitment for the mentally ill across more than 40 years. And then there’s the rest of the project: graphics, other print pieces, video. What was the paper hoping to do with this project?

It was biting off quite a lot. The assignment came from the managing editor, George Stanley. It was right after the shooting in Tucson, when Gabby Giffords and the others were shot.

Just to backtrack a bit, I’ve written about mental health issues for the paper for a long time. This has been something that we have heard repeatedly: “Why aren’t we better able to predict who is in trouble, who is dangerous to himself or to others, identify them and get them into help before tragedy ensues?”

The night that President Obama gave his compelling speech in Tucson, I got an email from George Stanley saying, “Let’s take a look at this.” I already knew that the Alberta Lessard decision was the benchmark, that it was the pivotal court case that led to sweeping reform in commitment laws all over the country. So that’s how it got started.

One of our editors noted how vital it was for your story that you found Lessard. How did you locate her? Had you already been in touch with her?

I had, so that was the easy part. Again, because I’ve written about mental health issues for so many years, I was familiar with her. She is going strong at 91, and is a fascinating person. I’m in her debt for her being so generous with her time. And believe me, we spent many, many hours talking about all kinds of things. That was, I think, critical. But in terms of putting together the story, this was not so much a focus on the Alberta Lessard case. It was a happy coincidence that it was the 40-year anniversary, but that was not the incentive for doing the story.

We spent many hours at her house, the video/photo guy, Gary Porter, and me. She makes for compelling footage, as well as being a human quote machine. What a treat in every way, especially journalistically, to be able to have access to this historical figure. I kind of likened her, in my mind, to the Rosa Parks of the mental health system.

But it’s complicated. You’re trying to address the issue of protecting patients’ rights and also the challenge of protecting society from the violently mentally ill. How did you approach balancing the very graphic nature of the murders that make these headlines and this other fact, which you carefully note, that only a tiny percentage of mentally ill people ever commit this kind of violence?

It was the most challenging assignment that I’ve had in my 31 years as a reporter. You probably hear that from everyone you talk to! (Laughs.) It was daunting. I was very, very concerned that we not overstate anything, both with the regard to the issue of dangerousness and mental illness and the Lessard decision legacy. I had in my mind every day that we had to give this the exact right emphasis – I was very aware of the sensitivities around this issue. I worked on this thing for many months and was really careful.

Did you have any rules for yourself, ways of checking yourself?

The short answer to that is yes, because I had background enough to know about the different poles or camps, the ideological ground that people come from. It’s a lot like the abortion issue, or even the Middle East or Northern Ireland. There are very passionate opinions on what is the best way to care for people with mental illness.

There were a number of challenges: not playing into stereotypes, not sensationalizing something or overstating it. Also in terms of telling a story, not devolving into a he-said-she-said kind of thing. I didn’t want it to be a quote-’em-up about what’s the best way to identify somebody with mental illness. I wanted to go beyond that.

We started by going right to the people on the polar ends of this argument. I began with the Bazelon Law Center in Washington, D.C., and the Treatment Advocacy Center in Virginia, because those two organizations represent really opposite thinking in many ways on the question of commitment.

What about somebody asked to tackle this kind of story without your experience? This story has to balance a lot of ambiguity. Can you offer any strategies for how to approach the Middle East, Northern Ireland and mental health issues?

In some ways, that’s almost an advantage. I felt that I had those people in my head the whole time. It was a good thing, but it also slowed me down a lot. I was nervous – not that I wanted to please them, that was not the purpose of the story – but I’m acutely aware of the sensitivities.

The advice to people 5 or 10 years in … Just assume that people don’t have a big background. You can see pretty quickly where people fall. And so I kind of had a twin narrative in this story that I tried to maintain: Alberta Lessard and the Richard Wilson case. And it’s really interesting about how that came to pass.

In Richard’s case, the current case, (there’s) a young man, obviously dangerous, and the mother – both parents really – grasping for any help they could get. In Alberta’s case, she’s literally 91 years old, not a harm to anybody, and she keeps getting arrested and thrown into mental health complex. How ironic and what different circumstances. I thought that it made for a very interesting contrast. Younger reporters or reporters with less experience, I think they could still tease that out, that there are very different points of view that represent the tension in the overall argument.

I guess this is kind of hokey, but I always think, “What would you be talking about over the fence?” That’s the cliché in reporting, of course. If you were talking over the fence to a neighbor, how would you frame it?

So how did the Wilson case come to you?

It’s one of those things that happen every once in a while that give you chills. I know Martha Wilson, the mother in this really sad story. She, among other things, taught my kids. She’s a schoolteacher, and she grew up next door to my cousin. She was not a friend, but an acquaintance, somebody I would know to say hello to on the street.

So there I was one morning, two or three months after getting this assignment. I had told my cousin that I was working on this, traveling around the country to talk about this really tough issue. I’m out walking my beagle one morning, and there’s Martha out walking her dog, and she came up to me and said, “Meg, I understand you’re working on this story. You know, we’re having a really hard time with our son Richard. We can’t get him to take his medication. What are you finding out in your reporting?” I said, “Oh, it’s just a mess. It’s really a challenge. I’m so sorry you’re going through this.” She said, “I’m going to call you sometime, and maybe we can talk about this some more.” Two weeks later, her son kills her father with an ax.

It was just haunting. There wasn’t a day after that that I didn’t see Martha Wilson’s face when I sat down to write this story or to report it. That was so chilling to me, and it kind of put the story in my lap. That was a good thing and a bad thing. It made it even more challenging, but it also made it more searing.

When it came to putting the stories together, some of our editors liked the braided narrative that moved in and out of the different stories, and some wanted it more pared down. Was that a discussion that took place at the Journal Sentinel, too?

We didn’t really debate it, but we talked about it. You know, the challenge of it, of course, is that you don’t want to confuse the reader. You also don’t want to make it too tidy, or to be hokey or forced. But it did provide the continuum. You could see the vast difference, the conditions Alberta faced in 1971 that led to her challenge of these laws, and then fast forward to 2011 and the practical implications.

But then again, I was quite concerned about not wanting to oversimplify that so as to say that the Lessard decision was responsible for the Richard Wilson murder – that would really be a stretch. But certainly the Lessard decision informed or provided the atmosphere or the legal environment for how he was ultimately treated. He had pulled a knife on his mom and dad, and they had called the police, and the police took him out to the mental health complex. It was these doctors, using that litmus test that was established in the Lessard case, who concluded that he was not an imminent danger. And so they didn’t commit him. And months later, this happened. It just makes you wonder, what would have happened if the laws were different?

What did you see as the main storytelling challenges when you were writing the piece?

I always approach stories about mental health stuff with the concern that readers identify with the people in the story as people. I know how marginalized people with mental illness are in our society. You’ve got to get them to care, No. 1, and that’s a huge challenge. And then the next challenge is to keep them invested in the story. And this is a really long story, and as you noted, really complicated. And so the next challenge was to keep them engaged and make sure that all points of view were represented as best as you can – and then to answer the question: “Why aren’t we doing a better job?”

I don’t know that we answered that, but I think that we gave readers a lot to think about. I learned a lot in doing this, and I think readers got a historical sense of events.

What has reaction been to the piece?

It’s been really mixed. Some in the mental health community were upset, especially at the layout, the fact that we would feature Jared Loughner’s face and (Seung-Hui) Cho’s face in there, that we were highlighting the issue of dangerousness. That’s a really sensitive topic in the mental health community. They’ve fought against the stereotype of the crazed lunatic. They were upset that there was that emphasis given to the front page and a big chunk of the newspaper that day to that issue. That’s one camp.

But families of people who have been in this situation were very grateful, I would say, and I think in a way relieved that what they go through all the time was validated in a newspaper article. And then others found it an interesting part of history that they didn’t know about.




2 comments

  1. John Casper
    posted February 8, 2012 at 2:48 pm | permalink

    Really nice piece, thanks.

  2. Preetinder Dhillon
    posted February 11, 2012 at 11:19 am | permalink

    Very absorbing, informative interview. Like it for right balance, right perspective and clear focus it advocates for writing the real tough pieces; as well as the courage and persistence required.

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