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Feb. 13, 2019, 10:05 a.m.
Reporting & Production

How Capital Public Radio covered a community’s high suicide rate (and developed a tool for residents to keep)

“This is almost a plague in this county. Why wouldn’t we want to raise awareness and do it in a way that really had an impact?”

Covering suicides has, sadly, become more and more codified in the journalism industry — literally, here’s a site called Reporting on Suicide. Don’t include how they died, link to a support hotline or other resources in the piece, use words like “died by suicide” instead of “successful attempt.” But that’s been largely reactive as more and more celebrities have died by suicide. Capital Public Radio, whose Sacramento-based airing area includes a community with the third highest rate of suicide in California, took a proactive approach last year.

“When I worked for a number of years in the Bay Area, we had people throwing themselves off the Golden Gate Bridge quite frequently. It was always a ‘police activity’ and we never reported it as suicide,” Cap Radio’s managing editor for news and information, Linnea Edmeier, said. “When Robin Williams committed suicide, I felt like it was the first big moment where nobody could turn away from that…. We realized it wasn’t salacious to open up the topic as long as we did it in a way that wasn’t salacious.”

Edmeier is unfortunately well-versed in the situation in Amador County — she grew up there, lives there today, and can off the top of her head recite connections to five different people in Amador County who died by suicide. She felt it was especially appropriate for Cap Radio to take a more active stance: “This is almost a plague in this county. Why wouldn’t we want to raise awareness and do it in a way that really had an impact?”

With $3,000 in grants from USC Annenberg’s Center for Health Journalism, reporter Sammy Caiola and senior community engagement strategist jesikah maria ross designed an approach to familiarize themselves with the Amador County area, dig into the situation and open discussions on it, and create a tool for residents to take home and bring the project full circle. It’s a lot for a public radio station to take on, especially when the community in question is not a core part of the station’s audience. But 88 percent of respondents to a survey after one of the station’s events in Amador County said they were motivated to address the challenges with the suicide rate in the area and 83 percent said they were more comfortable talking about suicide and its symptoms with friends and family. Here was Cap Radio’s blueprint:

  • Write up a plan.
  • Reread and revise it often.
  • Introduce yourself and involve trusted sources of information.
  • Ask local experts to frame the issues and solutions.
  • Act on community feedback.
  • Stay in touch.
  • Find opportunities for synergy.
  • Evaluate what happened.

Caiola had been exploring the data from the California Department of Public Health’s 2018 County Health Status Profiles since early 2018, finding that the 37,000 people in Amador County experienced 85 suicides between 2010 and 2017. She started spending more time in Amador County to get to know the community in April 2018, beginning with a booth at a suicide awareness 5K race.

“When we first put together the plan, it was a very loose outline based on some ideas that we had thought through ourselves. Part of our community engagement methodology is to build in collaboration with community partners,” ross said. They found the behavioral health department of Amador County, shared the plan, and started revising. (The department would also become helpful in passing off the project to a local committed group at the end, but we’ll get there.)

A major way Caiola built connections was through call-outs in the local newspaper (yes, they still have one!), the Ledger Dispatch, and interview spots on the local AM radio station KGVC. She followed up with contacts from the call-outs and the 5K and focused on getting to know the area, as a self-proclaimed city kid reporting on rural issues.

“I’m the reporter that likes to be upfront when I’m coming in without a knowledge base. I like to admit what I don’t know. It tends to make people more open to talking to me,” she said. The 5K, a Fourth of July celebration, and other visits from early April to July helped Caiola develop a sense of Amador County. Ross and engagement editor Olivia Henry from the USC Annenberg Center for Health Journalism described the relationship with local media in a piece for Current:

Working with local media would become an indispensable part of this project. Amador County, while inside CapRadio’s broadcast footprint, is not the subject of regular coverage. Residents told us that the station didn’t have much traction in the area, which was a barrier to trust. With that in mind, we appeared multiple times in the Ledger or on KVGC — sometimes with a task or a request, but other times just to check in. We were and remain very grateful for their help.

A community-driven convening, a road map of angles for Caiola to pursue, more local media spots, and a capstone planned convening centered the rest of the team’s project, resulting in a four-episode podcast, aired both on Cap Radio and Amador station KGVC during National Suicide Prevention Week in September, and 15 online pieces in Cap Radio’s Rural Suicide package. More than 100 people came to the final gathering, two weeks after a local murder-suicide took place, and discussed the stories and resources. That was the meeting after which more than eight in ten respondents said they were more aware, more comfortable, and more motivated to talk about suicide among friends and family in Amador County.

After working with the community to figure out how to approach the topic, though, Cap Radio wanted to give them something tangible back in return. While Amador County is in the station’s footprint, it isn’t part of their main coverage are, and once the grant ran out there weren’t plans to maintain the same level of presence (aside from managing editor Edmeier’s home, of course).

“What we heard in various engagement activities, including Sammy’s one-to-one reporting, was that people really wanted some way to open conversations on this taboo topic and with very specific communities,” ross said, highlighting veterans groups, youth groups, and Native American communities. The conversation kit they created includes a guide to framing a gathering to talk about suicide, snippets of audio from Caiola’s reporting, discussion questions to unpack the issues mentioned. ross visited Amador in November to demo the process.

“There has to be a way to wrap a particular project so everyone feels that sense of closure,” ross said. “By having some tools and processes and evaluation measurements in place, our partners can take what we’ve created, sometimes by us or in collaboration with our partners, and move forward.”

Looking for more resources? Give these a click:

Image from this collection of art aimed at destigmatizing mental illness used under a Creative Commons license.

POSTED     Feb. 13, 2019, 10:05 a.m.
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