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A story about a remote possibility

Illustration by Carlos Carmonamedina
Carlos Carmonamedina for NPR Public Editor

Among American newsrooms, NPR is a leader in covering mental health. Between its health sections, Goats and Soda team and partnership with Kaiser Health News, NPR provides its audience with many opportunities to consume stories about mental health services and research.

An audience member raised concerns recently about an August story intended to clarify information on the new 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline that has been floating around on social media. The story addressed a question: Can a person who calls the hotline find themselves involuntarily committed to a treatment center or hospital?

We looked closely at the web story and talked to the journalist behind the report. We wanted to explore whether focusing on something that might happen rarely is responsible explanatory journalism, or a deterrent to those who want to call and seek help.

This is an important question for journalists as they figure out what to do with misinformation. If people believe something is much more common than it actually is, does offering a more detailed explanation get news consumers closer to the truth? Or does focusing on the misconception cement the distortion in people's minds? This 2021 study concluded that the more often people hear information, even wrong or distorted information, the more likely they are to believe it is true.

That puts an extra layer of responsibility on journalists to make sure that when they address questionable information, or a remote possibility, they are as emphatic and clear as possible as they deliver accurate and contextual information. Read on to see our analysis of the story.

We also spotlight a fun story about a massive audio archive finding a new home at the Library of Congress, and an insightful story about what it means to have dynamic workers in the economy.

FROM THE INBOX

Here are a few quotes from the Public Editor's inbox that resonated with us. Letters are edited for length and clarity. You can share your questions and concerns with us through the NPR Contact page.

The ethics of reporting about concerns with 988

Jessica Heise wrote on Aug. 11: NPR should not be promoting someone's untested opinion [about the 988 Suicide & Crisis Lifeline] as "what you need to know."

Continued in a follow-up email: I found the headline ["Social media posts warn people not to call 988. Here's what you need to know"] dangerously misleading. Upon further reading, seeing that the person's experience with the crisis hotline took place prior to 988 rollout and that the person may have in fact received the level of care that the crisis warranted, the tone of the article became more upsetting.

As someone who has had to involuntarily hospitalize countless patients, I am hopeful that people will start to utilize these Living Room locations when possible. Other times, people simply aren't safe, and citing one study that states involuntary hospitalization increases risk for suicide post-discharge is irresponsible.

I appreciate that your staff dug into the sources and presented various perspectives. Bottom line and major concern is that the piece reads as a warning against reaching out for help during a crisis. ...

This story is part of a partnership between NPR and Kaiser Health News (KHN). It looked into why some people posted on social media to discourage people from using 988, the nation's new suicide prevention crisis resource. We contacted KHN reporter Aneri Pattani, who wrote the story and was interviewed for the audio version. Via email, she responded to our questions about her reporting and the piece's framing.

"This piece involves a lot of nuance and sensitivity," wrote Pattani, who is pursuing a master's degree in public health from Johns Hopkins University. "As a mental health and addiction reporter, I navigate these concerns frequently. I approached this story as I do others: with an eagerness to learn from various perspectives and understand the research behind them."

The story idea came from social media. Pattani contacted creators of several popular posts about 988 on various platforms and interviewed those who responded. One creator quoted was Liz Winston, who, as noted in the piece, had not called 988 but warned against it because she had experienced being involuntarily detained and wanted others to know this could happen if they called 988. The piece also reported that law enforcement may be sent without the caller's consent, if deemed necessary. Some mental health advocates oppose police involvement because it breaks confidentiality and can be dangerous, potentially leading to the death of the person in crisis rather than de-escalation. The story cited that "1 in 5 fatal police shootings in 2019 involved a person with mental illness."

Pattani also included a section called "What does 988 say about how it handles crisis situations?" In that section, John Draper, executive director of the hotline, said that the organization recognizes there are some risks to having law enforcement called during a mental health crisis.

Draper said, "We know the best way for a person to remain safe from harm is for them to be empowered and to choose to be safe from harm," and that dispatching police is a last resort.

Winston's "point that some individuals who call 988 may be involuntarily committed is true," Pattani said about her decision to include a source who had not used the hotline but was warning against it. "The hotline acknowledges this as well, though of course they explain — as I do in the article — that it is a rare occurrence."

In her reporting, Pattani said she looked at "research studies or other documentation on the topics they raised, such as the connection between psychiatric hospitalization discharge and suicide or the United Nations' resolution on involuntary treatment."

"I searched for research in broad terms, not looking to confirm particular views but rather to understand the literature produced on a given topic," she said. "I also reached out to a mental health professional who was familiar with 988 but not personally involved as a patient or administrator in order to get her perspective."

She didn't feel as if the piece warned against reaching out for help. A line toward the end of the piece says: "The 988 hotline is the nation's most comprehensive mental health crisis service and can provide crucial help to those in emotional distress." She also cited several resources that people could use if they didn't feel comfortable using 988 services.

This is a complex topic. The perspectives of those who are wary about the hotline, even if they haven't used it, are valid and worth hearing when accurately conveyed, because others likely share those same concerns. It is a fact that some people are against the resource just as it is a fact that emergency services or law enforcement sometimes get involved when someone calls the hotline, and the public deserves to know all of that. Those sources' views were supported with research, and the story also provided a balanced look by seeking information from 988. Pattani provided the audience an additional avenue for seeking help if they didn't want to use 988.

Covering 988 is critical to covering mental health services in the United States and worthy of multiple stories with different framing. We should note that NPR has produced other coverage of 988, including this initial story the day the hotline launched. NPR published a WITF story centered on the perspectives of 988 crisis counselors shortly after Pattani's piece and has done additional reporting since.

Pattani's story started from the point of view of a person who has doubts about the service and explored related facts. The reporting was thorough and presented various outlooks, and confirmed that even with the varied viewpoints, 988 is a resource that can aid many people. Making and emphasizing that point sooner may have alleviated concerns that the piece was discouraging people in crisis to seek help. Still, it's evident that Pattani took care in her nuanced reporting. — Emily Barske

SPOTLIGHT ON

The Public Editor spends a lot of time examining moments where NPR fell short. Yet we also learn a lot about NPR by looking at work that we find to be compelling and excellent journalism. Here we share a line or two about the pieces where NPR shines.

A story rich in sound

Morning Edition delivered a rich profile about Jim Metzner, an audio archivist who has spent several decades capturing sounds from his travels around the world. "For the last 40-plus years, I've sort of been a listener," Metzner said. The Library of Congress has acquired the full body of his work, which has thousands of recordings, along with photographs and journals. Metzner transports listeners to Great Gull Island in New York with a flock of birds, and a Japanese village with artisans who make rocks and soil into clay for pottery. It's refreshing to learn about someone so passionate about what he does, and the sounds he's found. — Amaris Castillo

Economic dynamism

Myriad terms have been thrown around about the current state of the economy and the job market. A recent All Things Considered piece centered on the word "dynamism." As defined by Economic Policy Institute president Heidi Shierholz, it's the change, advancement and restless entrepreneurial spirit of workers. Stacey Vanek Smith, the co-host of NPR's The Indicator from Planet Money, talked to a couple of job hoppers and economists to take a better look at what's really happening. The piece includes a quick listen, written storytelling and interesting data that give the audience a new perspective on an issue that's been the subject of much conversation. — Emily Barske

The Office of the Public Editor is a team. Editor Kayla Randall, reporters Amaris Castillo and Emily Barske and copy editor Merrill Perlman make this newsletter possible. Illustrations are by Carlos Carmonamedina. We are still reading all of your messages on Facebook, Twitter and from our inbox. As always, keep them coming.

Kelly McBride
NPR Public Editor
Chair,
Craig Newmark Center for Ethics & Leadership at the Poynter Institute

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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