Death is not something most people want to think about, let alone read about in the local newspaper. Reporting on end-of-life issues takes sensitivity, sound editorial judgement, patience and tenacity to develop relationships with patients and families, to share their stories and for them to allow a virtual stranger into their lives during such an intimate time.
Luanne Rife, health reporter at The Roanoke Times, not only wrote extensively about these issues, she gave readers a close-up view of the process through intimate and memorable profiles. She was welcomed with open arms by several terminally ill patients and families, for her series Final Wishes: Navigating LIfe’s Last Journey. At times, she became so immersed in the project that she had to put her reporter’s notebook aside to deal with the emotional toll these relationships took. Rife won first place in AHCJ’s Excellence in Health Care Journalism in the consumer feature (small) category, for her work examining choices people with terminal illnesses and their families face at the end of life.
“This series is a journalistic tour de force,” the judges commented. “Writer Luanne Rife shines a bright light on a dark subject: end-of-life choices that must be made. She tells the stories of terminally ill patients in vivid and heart-rending detail.” They also noted that the series did a vital community service by highlighting a lack of hospice services in Virginia, commending both Rife and The Roanoke Times for generating community response which addressed that problem.
In this How I Did It piece, Rife explained that before she could even begin profiling people near the end of life, she had to first educate her readers about issues like hospice and palliative care. Compared to neighboring North Carolina and West Virginia, there are there are fewer hospice houses in Virginia — as Rife learned, it’s mostly because of cultural barriers that prevent people from taking about death. However, Rife found several programs to profile, and spoke with volunteers and health professionals who dedicate themselves to helping the dying.
She did more than just tell her readers about hospice, hospice houses, palliative care and other aspects of end of life. She showed them, through evocative depictions of patients facing choices about care, of families struggling to come to terms with grief and loss and highlighting the people and programs who make these last transitions a little easier.
The series is a powerful reminder of why we need to address the issues of death and dying well and how journalists can have a lasting impact on their readers by handling a sensitive issue with compassion, coupled with a strong narrative and striking images.