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How a one-word idea can lead to a Page One story Date: 03/29/16

 

By Amy Ellis Nutt

For years, I’ve kept a list of story ideas ranging widely across subject areas. I’m a relentlessly curious person, but often they were more one-word suggestions than full-fledged concepts. One of them was “loneliness.” As a projects and general assignment reporter at The Star-Ledger in Newark, N.J., I certainly observed a lot of loneliness, but never had the chance to formulate it into a genuine story pitch. That changed when I joined the health, science and environment team at The Washington Post in 2014. My beat here is the brain, with a special emphasis on mental health/illness.

As someone with a background in philosophy, especially the philosophy of mind, I’ve always been intrigued by questions about identity, consciousness and the mind-body connection, and occasionally had the opportunity to explore those topics.

The tools available today to neuroscientists have changed the research – and reporting – landscape. In recent years, scientists have found the neural correlates associated with everything from moral decision-making to murder. There are few aspects of our mental, emotional, social and physical lives that cannot somehow now be tracked back to the brain. There’s even a new branch of neuroscience called social cognition, which looks at how people process information about others. All of which is to say that I throw the net wide when looking for brain-related ideas, so anything that impacts mental health, such as loneliness, clearly falls into it. Loneliness also seems like one of those semi-afflictions of mental well-being that hasn’t been very well studied. It is distinct from depression, and I knew that it was something readers perhaps didn’t understand well.

So in January, when I began to go over story ideas for the coming year with my editors at the Post, the time seemed ripe to retrieve my old list, which I hadn’t looked at in a while (yes, I have multiple lists). A quick online search reaped numerous recent stories about loneliness, some of them cutting edge in deciphering the biological processes of social isolation, right down to the molecular level. They were, to say the least, eye-opening, although admittedly it was important not to be “scared off” by technical titles, such as, “Myeloid differentiation architecture of leukocyte transcriptome dynamics in perceived social isolation,” which appeared in the December 2015 issue of Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

I also learned that several meta-analyses had been done recently, which yielded ever stronger connections between loneliness and illness. Along with epidemiological studies, these kinds of studies can sometimes be misleading, but increased computer power as well as a new sense of collaboration among scientists, are yielding important details that would be lost in smaller population studies.

When the story was published, online and in print, on the Post’s front page, its impact was surprising and considerable. I heard from health care professionals, college students and even family members worried about relatives. One person wrote to say his wife wanted a copy to send to her siblings because “the article nails what we see in one of her sisters, whom we all care for very much.” A physician said she was sharing the article with her colleagues.

Two weeks after the story appeared I was still receiving email, including one from a person operating a new social networking site called Krewe, which he described as offering “small, local, real world social groups for people to help build lasting, meaningful friendships and relationships…”

So as one story idea was crossed off my list, another took its place.

Amy Ellis Nutt is a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist covering health for The Washington Post. In addition to loneliness, her recent stories have examined Neanderthal DNA; brain disease in NFL players and a man who played the saxophone during his own surgery. She tweets at @amyellisnutt.