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How one slide at an AHCJ workshop led to story in The New York Times Date: 02/18/16

Laura Beil

By Laura Beil

Last November, The New York Times science section featured my piece about suicide in rural America on its cover. I wish I could say it came about because of my superb investigative skills and inside sourcing, but the truth is the story pretty much fell into my lap during AHCJ’s Rural Health Workshop months earlier.

The June 2015 workshop was held in Fort Worth. I live near Dallas. Since the event was local for me, the staff asked me to moderate a panel on mental health issues. I was happy to help, but didn’t really think I would get a story out of it. My main outlets as a freelancer are Men’s Health, Science News, and women’s magazines, none of which explore rural health with any frequency.

During the session I was moderating, one data slide was jaw-dropping: urban suicide rates have risen 7 percent over a decade, while rural suicide increased by 20 percent. I couldn’t think about much else the rest of the day as all the other statistics I heard faded to background noise. 

I had presumed there was a disparity but not such a large, worsening gap. During the workshop’s lunch break, I emailed Mike Mason, the health editor of Science Times: Was it just me, or was this startling?

The slide that got Laura Beil's attention during the 2015 Rural Health Journalism Workshop.

He answered within the hour. We thought there was an important issue to explore, but the story would be neither short nor simple. I would need to seamlessly weave together many complex variables. Being a child of small-town Texas, I knew there was a danger of lapsing into stereotypes, both good and bad. I have a history with the Times, so he knew I liked to report on complicated and often controversial issues. Also, since this was a phenomenon so tied to geography, I did not think it would be meaningful to report this over the phone. I needed to travel, but I was unsure of the best point of departure for the story.

Given the stigma of suicide, I knew the biggest challenge would be finding affected families who would speak to me and agree to be named and photographed. The Times also wanted the voice of someone with a recent loss (to help establish the immediacy of the concern), and they wanted to avoid people who had been in the media previously. That meant I had to find someone willing to talk about a loved one who had taken his or her own life in the past year – and do so publicly for the first time in one on the nation’s biggest publications, with a picture. Not since I was searching for a first-person account of drug-resistant gonorrhea had I faced such a challenge.

I ended up traveling to Wyoming in September, partly because the state had the highest suicide rate in the nation and partly because local volunteers were having a conference to address suicide prevention. I had never written about the subject, and I learned much from talking with attendees, who included mental health professionals, community volunteers, law enforcement officers and family members. Most importantly for journalists, I realized that detailed, graphic descriptions of suicides in the media can serve as triggers for people who are vulnerable. In my story, I took care to only provide as much detail as necessary, but no more.

My Wyoming contacts eventually connected me with a woman in Laramie whose daughter had taken her own life earlier in the year. We exchanged some messages. I tried to reassure her, but ultimately she had to trust me, something for which I have a great deal of respect and gratitude. It was a tough interview—I have a teenage daughter almost the same age. Her pain was raw and vivid.

In the end, I was proud of the story and of the way the Times played it so prominently. The idea arose from one simple data slide, but like most of what we report on the health beat, the issues behind it were far more intricate. I’m happy that AHCJ connected me to a subject that mattered so much, and reminded me that good stories are often right in front of you, if you only look.

Laura Beil (@LJBeil) is a freelance health and science reporter based in Dallas. In addition to The New York Times, recent stories have been featured in Men’s Health, Cosmopolitan, O, and Science News. See her story about rural suicide.