Go to the SAVE National Media Award page to learn more about the award and how to enter or how to nominate a journalist.
1st Place Winner
Best Online Publication: Hard News
Submission: How To Prevent Suicide Among Tweens
Summary: This feature story examined how suicide has become the second leading cause of death for children ages 10 to 14, who are online more than ever before, and is focused on a group of “semicolon” kids, who survived suicide attempts and are working to find new ways of coping and connecting.
The semicolon kids meet at The Sky Center a remarkable, community-oriented suicide prevention center in New Mexico, a state that has long had high suicide rates, and which uses systems therapy to care for children and their families.
My approach resulted from insights gleaned over nearly 20 years of writing about mental health (for The New York Times and Newsweek), and my studies of how changes in communication technology profoundly alter human perception, beliefs & ideas. Suicide is never caused by just one thing, and so I worked to show the reader the confluence of variables that are affecting tween mental health. In addition to society’s changing expectations of children, kids today are exposed to excessive amounts of online media, which has a profound effect on their neurobiological, and emotional well-being; working families are enduring inhumane levels of stress; and the widespread diminishment of in-person social networks means a decrease in social supports that, for most of human history, have provided a primary source of emotional security & well-being. Featuring the Sky Center’s in-person methodology allowed me to show (and not just tell) how in-person communication and relationships are usually more nurturing than those conducted only online.
Executing this story presented many challenges: I first brought my concerns about the increase in suicide among tweens to The New York Times several years ago; they wanted the story but I was asked to sit on it for extended period owing to an editing backlog. Eventually I brought the story to Huff Post, and then faced the challenge of finding a unique, hopeful angle. Sky Center was (understandably) very reluctant to allow a journalist into its private counseling spaces, so it took some time to win their trust. Interviewing suicidal kids always presents an array of issues, as it is important to treat them with the dignity and care they deserve, while also being mindful that they may be even more vulnerable than most subjects to potential difficulties once the story is published. Then I completed my reporting the very same week the U.S. recognized we were amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which further delayed publication, and required me to re-report and re-write several sections of the piece.
While completing the story in the wake of the pandemic (and the BLM uprising) was challenging, ultimately I believe I provided a compelling, ethical and hopeful look at suicidality and contributed to public understanding of mental health. Specifically, I hope I raised awareness of the responsibility adults bear to provide healthier supports to children, to lessen their access to information that is developmentally inappropriate, and to resist efforts by technology companies to view tweens as merely potential revenue sources.
1st Place Winner
Best Broadcast: Hard News
Submission: Ahead of new suicide prevention lifeline, experts sound the alarm
Summary: This report is meant to educate people about the new 988 lifeline, while highlighting the concerns some experts have. I pressed local and national leaders about how the line will be funded and staffed, given the expected large increase in people using the line once it launches. It also provided those same experts the opportunity to rally for its success and describe its transition, while acknowledging the hurdles. The story also allowed me to promote other local resources available for people who might need help.
1st Place Winner
Best Multimedia: Investigative Reporting
Submission: Mental Competency Consequences
Summary: In October 2021, the number of people found mentally incompetent to stand trial and waiting in Texas jails for restoration treatment at a state hospital hit a new record: 1,838. A state advisory committee admits specific data on individuals waiting could help reduce that backlog, but KXAN discovered many critical details are not tracked. Without that data, the state acknowledges the consequences of the growing waitlist are largely unknown – including when people die waiting. Our research found data on this topic is often hidden or unreliable – a discovery sparking promise for change from state leaders.
This project is supported by the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism. Following two years of reporting on mental competency challenges in Texas jails, our KXAN investigators were chosen to continue their research, participate in the center’s National Fellowship and were awarded a grant from the Dennis A. Hunt Health Journalism Fund. The fellowship is designed for journalists who want to do groundbreaking reporting on health disparities. We spent six months working on the resulting “Mental Competency Consequences” project.
This multi-platform investigative project launched in early December 2021 with a main page, including a longform article, video docuseries and rolling data components. We also provided featured links to breakout stories including solutions surrounding this topic, an inside look at how we created the project, interactive data elements and accompanying video vignettes. Additionally, we produced digital-first engagement events and a half-hour special edition of our weekly political program, State of Texas, focused solely on this topic.
Following our reporting, the Joint Committee on Access and Forensic Services – the HHSC panel advising the mental competency waitlist for the state – began tracking and publicly posting the race and ethnicity of individuals on the waitlist in early 2022 and will begin discussing how to track how homelessness related to the waitlist in the future. Specific members have also told our team they plan to push for tracking deaths on the waitlist as soon as possible, and the new chair of the committee suggested legislation may be needed to improve reporting statewide.
In its first meeting after our investigation, the committee noted the waitlist numbers had continued to climb to 2,127 and nearly a third of state hospital beds were offline largely due staffing shortages and the COVID-19 pandemic. The committee called it an “emergency” and even discussed calling on the Texas governor to activate the National Guard for help. HHSC also announced it would soon offer hiring bonuses up to $5,000 for workers to increase the staff numbers.
1st Place Winner
Best Online Publication: Feature Report
Submission: Opinion: On the Delicate Topic of Youth Suicide, Journalists Are Faltering
Summary: The submitted Undark opinion piece, entitled ‘On the Delicate Topic of Youth Suicide, Journalists Are Faltering,’ is a careful consideration of youth suicide coverage. In recent months, as concern about youth suicide has mounted, newsrooms have explored why suicide amongst adolescents has risen in recent years. The public deserves to understand the complex answers to this question as such information may help prevent suicide by raising awareness of risk factors and evidence-based treatments. Yet, as I note in the piece, covering suicide is a high-stakes endeavor that requires sensitivity and knowledge of reporting guidelines informed by years of research and expertise.
In the piece, I set out to evaluate recent coverage that has faltered by these standards. My aim isn’t to scold my peers, particularly since I’ve made similar mistakes in the past. Rather, I hope to draw attention to the media coverage guidelines so that journalists can understand the stakes and how they can play a role in reducing contagion. The piece incorporates research about contagion that journalists may not have previously encountered. It explains some of the chief recommendations and identifies why those may provoke tension with journalists’ training to tell evocative stories using graphic details. The piece also offers examples of alternative approaches favored by experts in the field.
While this subject easily warrants thousands of words of analysis, the piece aims to be concise, persuasive, and empathetic to the real-world challenges that journalists face when covering suicide. My hope is that readers, specifically journalists, finish the piece feeling better informed and more empowered to cover suicide in responsible, hopeful ways.