Advocacy journalism aims to express a non-subjective viewpoint on an important issue. Though examples are most commonly found in the op-ed pages, on occasion we come across a powerful investigative report that is rich with facts and inspires a certain call to action.
Today The Columbus Dispatch unveiled the first in its six part series exploring the impact of suicide in the state of Ohio. Its timing is entirely intentional, coinciding with this Saturday’s International Survivors of Suicide Loss Day (November 21). Written by reporters Lori Kurtzman, Jill Riepenhoff, and Mike Wagner, the package includes insights on suicide risk factors, mental health resources, survivor stories, and much more.
The Dispatch writes that the story has been the result of a nine month investigation, but in a way the idea for the series began many years ago after Wagner reported on a public suicide in downtown Columbus. What was originally a news brief turned into a story on public suicides that had a significant influence on many readers. “After that story ran, 15 people contacted me to tell me they reconsidered taking their own lives after reading it. I was able to connect 7 or 8 of those people to counselors,” Wagner said. “I thought, if I could have an impact with that kind of story, what kind of impact could we have with a larger series?”
In February, Wagner and his fellow reporters began gathering facts and seeking out sources to speak to about the issue. However, the subject was “so raw” that the reporters had to conduct their research gently. “We went to great lengths to be sensitive,” Wagner said. They reached out to sources in more personal ways, such as through Facebook messages and handwritten notes. The response they received was overwhelmingly positive. “In the end it was extraordinary. About 75 percent of the people we reached out to were willing to talk to us, and even those who didn’t have the strength to share their stories supported our mission.”
In addition to the powerful testimonies from experts and survivors, the package includes multimedia aspects that illuminate the issue. “The online presentation focuses on providing the information people need to get help,” Wagner said. This presentation includes photography, interactive graphics, and a 15-minute film captured by videographer Courtney Hergesheimer. Wagner explains that having a cohesive and successful digital presence comes from diligent planning and collaboration. “The key with adding a web component is to involve your web team and digital folks right from the very beginning.”
While the story has undeniable emotional weight, it is an example of journalism that aims not only to inform but also to inspire progress. “It is our mission to make people understand that this is a cause of death that is underplayed. The media has shied away from suicide for decades,” Wagner said. “Our goal in the end is to do whatever we can to prevent suicide and make the powers in our state understand that more needs to be done.”
Throughout this, we have had several advocates say to us that you’re going to save more lives than you realize. We hope they are right.”