During and after national tragedies like the school shooting in Newtown, Conn., journalists in newsrooms across the country search for new ways to cover national issues at a local level. Prompted by a challenge from the Dallas mayor, NPR Member Station KERA found a new area of the debate untouched by the majority of the media in their area.
"After Newtown, [Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings] felt there was going to be a lot of coverage on gun control and not enough on mental illness," says Sylvia Komatsu, KERA's Chief Content Officer. "He felt in our community, it was still a stigma; something that wasn't really discussed in public."
In addition to KERA, The Dallas Morning News decided to join in on the challenge and shed light on the topic. The organizations collaborated to produce a series of cross-platform reporting initiatives on the stigma of mental health.
"We were looking at how to use all of our platforms," Komatsu says. "We're a joint licensee in radio and television and [we also have] digital. The Dallas Morning News used their opinion section, did reporting, and wrote columns."
KERA produced a series of radio pieces profiling north Texans struggling with mental illness and brought local mental health experts onto their locally produced show, THINK, leading up to the big event: a live televised public forum called Erasing the Stigma: Mental Illness and the Search for Solutions.
The weeks leading up to the event were challenging for the KERA staff. With two news organizations working on the same project, communication was incredibly important.
"We had many conference calls with The Dallas Morning News and then [there was] separate brainstorming," says Komatsu.
KERA and the The Dallas Morning News had worked together on debates in the past, but Jeff Whittington, KERA senior producer, says this kind of collaboration on "Erasing the Stigma" was new.
"It was interesting," says Whittington. "We had three weeks to put together a live event and then turn it around for broadcast. The Dallas Morning News worked on a lot of the content side in terms of panelist guests and we took the lead on the logistical side in broadcasting."
The logistics included securing cameras and trucks for the Dallas City Performance Hall venue, booking panelists, and quickly editing footage for Internet and television distribution. All while continuing daily news coverage and programming.
Luckily, Whittington says, "Everyone across all the departments pitched in."
Although both teams were under a major time crunch, the quality of storytelling was always a priority for KERA.
"Health care is a big issue across the country and Dallas is no different. Caring for folks who are mentally ill is a big issue," says Whittington. "Our goal is to make sure as many people as possible can access information that's important to them and makes a difference in their lives."
To reach more people, KERA streamed the event for online audiences and promoted in social media with the Twitter hashtag #erasingthestigma. The station featured live blogging from KERA Vice President Rick Holter and science reporter Lauren Silverman.
"We have a very proficient, proactive, and capable team," says Whittington. "We've been doing cross-platform production for four or five years and we've been doing well."
Having years of experience came in handy when it was time for the actual event. KERA host Lee Cullum skillfully moderated the panel discussion which covered various aspects of mental health, including stigmas, funding, quality of care and education.
The public's reaction to "Erasing the Stigma" was extremely positive, says Komatsu.
"People didn't know where to turn and ["Erasing the Stigma"] helped," she says. "The Dallas Morning News and KERA provided resources on where to turn and we cross-referenced each other. [Combining efforts] really made a difference in this case."
Whittington says the station still gets calls about the project, even though it ended a month ago. That in itself, he says, makes the work rewarding.
"The conversation is still going," says Whittington. "We need to keep this going. Part of our mission is to equip people with information to make good decisions. That's why we do the content that we do. It fits into the core values of public broadcasting."
Krystina Martinez is a spring 2013 intern with Weekend Edition Sunday. She graduated from West Texas A&M University in 2012 and is pursuing a career in public radio.