The latest installment of Meg Kissinger’s ongoing investigative reports for the Journal Sentinel on mental health care in Milwaukee County appeared last week, and once again, it bore her unmistakable stamp.
It was passionate, yet controlled. The voice was strong and compelling. The point of view was clearly defined. And the reporting was informed by the distinctive personal connection Kissinger has brought to the subject. Mental illness has affected three of her siblings, two of whom died by suicide.
Kissinger’s stories on mental illness date back a quarter century. Her repeated forays into the shortcomings of existing programs – both nationally and in Milwaukee County – have won recognition, awards, and a special fellowship last year in conjunction with Marquette University’s Diederich College of Communications.
Her work stands out partly because of its striking challenge to the traditional rules of the news-writing craft. Last week’s piece included first-person narrative and explicit prescriptions for public policy.
Even as Kissinger was writing the story, she wasn’t sure what to call it. “I’m not an editorial writer,” she says she told herself. “Is [this] an essay? This was a foreign animal to me.”
As someone who has long wondered about all journalistic claims of “objectivity,” I have found Kissinger’s approach fascinating to watch. So I emailed the reporter and her editor, Greg Borowski, last week, with questions revolving around the way Kissinger’s work could be described as “breaking the rules.”
They replied, and Kissinger and I also had a short follow-up conversation. “I can’t stop thinking about how to make mental health care better, because I’ve experienced the pain and anguish from what happened to my family,” Kissinger says, by way of explaining her relentless dedication to the subject.
She acknowledges that such passion – including passion for change – raises hard questions in the world of hard news reporting. “The central question to me is, can a person have a personal stake [in a story],” she says, “and does that mean you surrender your objectivity?”
Both Borowski and Kissinger argue that the answer to that final question is “no.”
“I wouldn’t say Meg's reporting breaks rules, so much as breaks the mold a little bit – at least when it comes to conventional newspaper stories and what readers expect to see in their morning newspaper or online,” Borowski tells me in an email. “Clearly, Meg's personal experience informs her work. Indeed, that experience is part of what makes her work – and commitment to telling this tough story – so incredibly powerful. It would be foolish not to acknowledge it. She brings a deep understanding and special empathy to those who are struggling with the mental health system, something evident in all her stories.”
Recent example aside, the use of first-person is pretty rare in Kissinger’s work, according to her editor. There can’t be “a substitute for the deep and hard reporting that goes into a project of this magnitude,” he says.
A range of people who work in the system have told Kissinger and Borowski that they’ve learned new information from her reporting, and the families of mentally ill people have reacted strongly to the stories, as well. “My email box is fat,” Kissinger says.
Her most recent series started to run last summer. Kissinger spent “months of reporting, both data-driven and shoe leather” for the stories, Borowski says. Research in recent years has led her to Columbus, Ohio; Pittsburgh; San Antonio; Austin, Tex.; and Geel, Belgium.
The project she undertook with the Marquette fellowship was aimed at discovering whether Milwaukee’s problems were simply par for the course – or something worse.
“Mental health is crummy everywhere,” Kissinger says by email, “but I wanted to know what, if anything, distinguishes Milwaukee County. This can't be done with anecdotes. It has to be grounded in facts. So, I spent more than a year plowing through county budgets, health committee meeting notes and videos, thousands of pages of reports, legislative council committee meeting notes, etc. I interviewed policy makers, doctors, lawyers, family members, patients, caseworkers, etc.”
While her personal connection to the issue is a matter of public record, Kissinger points out, it’s shared by “most reporters and editors and all people.”
“I don't believe a personal connection and objectivity are mutually exclusive,” she continues. “As we say in the newsroom: facts is facts.”
At the same time, the Journal Sentinel is embracing a role that goes beyond “just the facts.” “In such reporting, we want to quantify problems, identify those responsible (and hold them accountable), highlight solutions and [find] better ways,” Borowski says.
To be sure, this has been the mission of many journalists, part of a stew with objectivity and balance.
“Do I have a point of view? Yes,” Kissinger says. “Mental health care needs to be improved. Milwaukee has some special challenges in this area that are not that difficult or expensive to fix. People need to pack up their egos and do the right thing for those who suffer. I have seen so many people suffer and die from poor care, and it breaks my heart.”
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