Subject tough to report on, but demands action

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There are some stories that can make a reporter want to run in the opposite direction.

It doesn't matter that it's your job or even if it is the right thing to do -- you know your stomach is going to hurt for days.

When I heard about the rising suicide numbers in the Walla Walla area, I knew I was headed down that bumpy road.

Writing about suicide is fraught with peril. No reporter is eager for the responsibility. Give details about the act and you can be blasted for sensationalizing or charged with promoting "copycat" acts.

I've received advice about how the media should cover such events, according to the experts -- offer resources, talk about prevention, but don't romanticize suicide. Be respectful of the loss.

Yes. I -- and most other reporters -- get this.

Write about the subject in a vague and general way, however, and you'll hear complaints you're covering up the true horror, staying silent, going around the reality.

Not giving voice to the survivors.

It's so complicated ... there are no hard and fast rules about reporting on the subject, a veteran reporter reminded me this morning.

Why not, instead, run a generic wire story, maybe get a quote from a local agency head and one from an emergency medicine provider and call it covered?

To do that, however, would have robbed me. And maybe you.

I saw something amazing happen in hastily-convened stakeholder meetings. People, everyone a stranger to at least a few in attendance, were willing to sweep "sacred cows" off the table. Deeply personal stories were shared, lost lives anguished over.

It did not matter, these folks decided, that nothing is yet in place, that no agency that can afford to take on a complete community education piece. There is no coordinated campaign.

Yet.

Those details were not enough to derail a building momentum that something has to be done about suicide rates in this community and that something has to happen now. The still waters must be stirred.

From those brand new to their office to the people who have been immersed in community health for decades -- all already working full-time jobs with schedules crammed to bursting -- no one declined to help. And it will take everyone, the group agreed. From the usual suspects such as public health and schools to getting a message out from area pulpits and podiums at service club meetings.

It's those kinds of moments when I know I am living in the right place and in the right job.

It's been hard, though. To sit with John Paulson and hear about his wonderful son, gone now for seven months, in a living room that's been devoted to Nate's memory ... that sort of experience sinks into my soul and stays for a long time.

To write about Nate, I needed to climb into John's skin. Even Nate's world had to be explored to a degree, so I could feel both the love and the despair.

I'd put that experience right up there with writing about children dying of cancer or a house fire claiming victims in the blaze.

You come to your desk, put on headphones and prepare to go under the surface for awhile, drowning in other people's pain. Who seeks that out?

But to do business in this community means to be part of solutions.

I am, however, going to rent a funny movie to watch tonight and talk with all my children. I think I'll eat a little valentine chocolate, play with the dog and let the kids have ice cream for no special occasion.

Thank you for reading.

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322. Check out her blog at blogs.ublabs.org/fromthestorageroom.

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