former journalists discuss a profession in crisis

A compelling story, but was it journalism?

In Blog on July 3, 2014 at 9:33 pm

Is there a sale on news print? The Washington Post has been running very long stories lately. Stories that go for pages and pages. I think sometimes think this is a sign that the paper is committed to in-depth journalism, but sometimes I wonder if the length reflects, at least in part, a dearth of good editors.
On Sunday June 28, the Post ran “The Man in the House.” It began on the front page and extended for two more nearly full pages of the print edition of the paper.
The story was well written. It had a strong narrative arc, and it deftly related the struggle of one local family to get mental health care for a loved one who refuses to take his medication and refuses hospitalization. It elicited more than 900 comments, many from people who had been diagnosed with mental illness, or were related to someone who had. It was compelling, and very, very sad. It reminded me of what was the existential question in my newsroom in the 1980s: Are you a reporter or a writer? The author is certainly is a talented writer. But was this story journalism?
I don’t think so. The story was not anchored with enough solid factual reporting to earn the reader’s trust that this account was true. And the story failed to provide enough context. It describes the problem as one of laws that make it too difficult for mentally ill people to be involuntarily committed, without acknowledging that there is a delicate balance between respecting the rights of the mentally ill and finding ways to effectively treat them. The piece gives very short shrift to the notion that laws were changed because terrible injustices had been done to individuals wrongfully committed for years to institutions, the victims of abuse and neglect. It may be good and effective storytelling to link this saga to the epidemic of mass killings by deranged and violent individuals, making its tone more ominous as the man’s mental state continues to deteriorate. But it oversimplifies both the cause of this epidemic of violence – many would blame the easy availability of guns for these recent mass murders — and implies that mental illness invariably explodes into violence.
The namelessness of the piece was really disturbing. Even though aspects of the story already were part of the public record – the man’s father had testified about his plight at a public hearing – the family was afforded complete anonymity. It seems the decision to keep the family’s name secret served the author’s narrative structure as much as it honored their privacy.
What makes me think that this was not just sensitivity on the part of the Post is that no one is on the record in the story. People are only identified by their occupation. So we get the comments of a psychiatrist or a lawyer or a neighbor, or hearing witnesses, but no names. We are given a domestic drama without anchor in facts. The reader is essentially told: “Trust us. This is true.”
Worse, the narrative is told as a series of days pass. It begins at Day 730 and ends with day 896. Unless the reporter followed the family for days on end, it is difficult to perceive what is reconstructed from the family’s recollections and what the reporter actually witnessed. If there were more details, one could better trust this reportorial decision.
And while the Post raises questions about the wisdom of public policy that makes it so difficult to involuntarily commit someone to a mental institution, it offers little context.
The print story does include a short “sidebar” with the history of mental health treatment in the U.S., but that is hardly sufficient. How many families are struggling with the same problem in Maryland and the U.S.? Are there are other states that have less restrictive laws? How does Europe handle this problem? Is anyone in Congress proposing legislation to address the Supreme Court decision that made involuntary commitment so difficult? And while the reporter mentions in passing the abuses at mental institutions that prompted the relaxation of the laws about involuntary commitment, the story does not address the larger problem, a lack of resources for treatment. Follow-up outpatient care in the community that was supposed to support the mentally ill and their families never materialized. Instead, the mentally ill were released from institutions that were more like prisons into communities totally unprepared to address their needs. It’s not simply a matter of laws that are too lax about involuntary commitment, it’s about a mental health system that has failed for decades. Interestingly, the comments to the story raised many of these issues.
Other reporters have found ways to write stories like this and done it brilliantly while remaining faithful to the reader by supplying facts. Madeleine Blais, who won a Pulitzer Prize for her feature writing, accomplished this feat in 1987 when she wrote “The Disturbance” for The Miami Herald’s Tropic Magazine. Blais’ reporting, even after all these years, feels true and moving. She profiled a Miami family dealing with a schizophrenic sister who had been homeless for years. But because her dialogue, sometimes reconstructed, is grounded in details and facts, the reader can believe. And this family bravely went on the record with their story.
Note to Post editors: If you’re going to encourage more of this style of reporting, learn from the best. Blais’ book, The Heart Is An Instrument, includes terrific examples of long-form writing that also is excellent reporting. And it’s easily available. Heck, I bought my copy on Amazon.

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