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University of Wisconsin–Madison

Covering mental health, suicide and addiction: A Q&A with Aneri Pattani

A UW red graphic showing a head shot of Aneri Pattani, a UW Center for Journalism Ethics logo and this text: "Covering mental health, suicide and addiction: A Q&A w/ Aneri Pattani, 2023 Journalist in Residence"

Audrey Thibert is a 2023-24 fellow at the Center for Journalism Ethics and an undergraduate student in the School of Journalism and Mass Communication at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.

Throughout Aneri Pattani’s journalism career, she has had to navigate — and sometimes help reconstruct — the ethical guidelines for reporting on mental health. 

Pattani is a senior correspondent at KFF Health News, a national nonprofit outlet covering U.S. health care and health policy. Her reporting focuses on mental health and addiction issues. Her current project is a year-long investigative series on state and local governments’ use of more than $50 billion in opioid settlement cash.

Pattani graduated from Northeastern University with a degree in journalism, and is currently pursuing her master’s in public health as a Bloomberg Fellow at Johns Hopkins University. As a fellow, Pattani helped create a free, online course for journalists to learn how to responsibly report on the topic of suicide. 

She joined KFF Health News in 2020 and became a senior correspondent in January 2023. Before Pattani joined KFF Health News, she worked for Spotlight PA, a publication that investigates the Pennsylvania state government.

Pattani, who is serving this week as the 2023 UW Center for Journalism Ethics Journalist in Residence, spoke with us about the ethics of mental health and addiction reporting. This interview has been edited for clarity and concision.

In a recent article for the Center, you talked about the importance of language in reporting on suicide. How does this also apply to other areas of health reporting? Is there one area of health reporting where we need to especially focus on language?

Language always matters, but it matters especially when we’re dealing with stigmatized issues. The way we frame these issues is going to affect the way people think about them, their willingness to talk about them, their willingness to see them as a health issue or as a criminal issue or as a personal failing. 

I’ve been doing a lot of addiction reporting this year and sometimes in interviews people will say someone is an ‘addict’ or a ‘junkie’ and I try not to use those words in my writing. If I want to quote that person, I will paraphrase them, or use a different quote and say ‘a person struggling with addiction or ‘a person who uses drugs’ or ‘a person with substance use disorder.’ Those terms really make it about a health issue that this person has. The research is all there. We know addiction is a brain disease, so I want to use the language that reflects that.

How do you make sure you are accurately distilling information for readers to understand complex health policies and landscapes in the U.S?

Two things come to mind. One at the front end, I ask a lot of questions, which journalists are generally good at. I ask the extra question anyway. I also find really good sources to interview — people who themselves get it and can distill what a study is saying simply or can just kind of be real with you. It also helps to make an analogy to something. When I find people who I interview can do that, then I can more easily do it in my writing as well. 

The other thing is on the backend. Once I write about complex health policies or research studies or science, I often will send the paragraph or get one of the sources on the phone and read it to them. I never send them the full story, of course. But to make sure that in simplifying an issue, I haven’t misrepresented anything. Cause that’s always the risk, right? I want to simplify it so people understand, but I don’t want to oversimplify it where now I’ve made it inaccurate. The sources don’t get to tell you they wish it looked different or change their quote. I want to check if it is accurate.

Your reporting also highlights solutions and positive developments. In your opinion, what is the importance of solutions journalism in your work?

It’s something that I am learning to do and trying to do a lot more. I think I could still do a much better job of this. It’s hard and our industry as a whole could, I think, do a better job of this.

Highlighting the problems is really important and you have so much accountability. Investigative reporting comes from saying something is wrong and people need to pay attention. But it’s also incomplete because I think a lot of people read those stories and feel like “Problems are all we see in the headlines. There’s nothing to do. The world’s just going downhill.”  I think to make our reporting more complete, getting at the solutions angle is really important. It makes people actually want to read it, makes people feel like it’s useful to them and makes people feel it’s serving them. 

Solutions journalism doesn’t have to find the solution — if that were the case, we probably wouldn’t be writing about the problem. But it’s sort of like, “Is there a policy step that could be taken?” or “Is there research that shows what works?” or “Is there another country, state  or place that is doing something to address the same problem that’s working in some way?” I think that’s part of the accountability, too, because if there is something that can be done, why aren’t the people in power doing it?

In your reporting on addiction, suicide and other heavy issues, you have to interact with some very vulnerable sources. The way we interact with sources depends on the situation, but what are some things you always keep in mind when it comes to interviewing and communicating with vulnerable sources in your work?

For vulnerable individuals who are sharing their personal story — not elected officials, not PR folks, not company representatives — I make a much bigger point of explaining to them how journalism works. What my story is gonna be, how I will talk to them for a while, but only a little bit will appear in my story. I talk to them about how their name will be out there in my outlet, but it could be reprinted in other places — it might show up in their small town, it might show up on a national outlet. 

I want them to be really informed when we talk about people giving us consent. If someone is really sharing something vulnerable with me, I want them to know a future employer might see this, someone they date in the future might see this. I say, “Are you okay with that? I think you’re really brave to share this story and I think it’s important and I want you to share it with me, but I also wanna lay out the risks.” Because I’ll write the story and move on. And the person can’t. And sometimes it results in people deciding they don’t want to talk to me or pulling out of a story. 

And as a reporter it sucks to go to your editor and say a source doesn’t want to do it anymore. But at least that person is not living with it for the rest of their life. As journalists, we sometimes wrongly assume everyone understands how journalism works.

How do you navigate and protect your own mental health when reporting on heavy topics? What sorts of things do you prioritize in your day-to-day that help your mental health?

I get this question a lot and I always like to preface it with the fact that the topics I write about are really heavy. And when I tell people I cover mental health, suicide and addiction, they assume it’s intense. But I think even though the topics are heavy, the individuals I’m interviewing are really inspiring. Because, generally, I’m talking to people who have been through something terrible in their life, but have come out the other side and want to use it to make a difference and help others. And that is really inspiring. And while there are sad parts to a lot of my conversations, I walk away feeling like humans are so resilient and this is amazing. 

Of course there are still hard things that get to me. Some day-to-day things I really like doing are either going out for a walk or a group workout class. I like doing something where I’m less in my mind because my body is demanding me to pay attention to something else. Otherwise, I’m someone who will think back on the interview and think through what I should be writing or how I felt and just staying in those thoughts for too long. So I like doing something physical that gets me out of it and gets me a little break. 

Also, there are certain topics that are particularly sensitive for me because they touch on my personal life. So when I do stories about college suicide and college mental health, it’s particularly hard for me. So I only do one at a time and I don’t do them back to back. And I’m in a very privileged position where I can make that choice and I can tell my editors I can’t do another follow up right now and I need to do something else.

You often report on policies that affect people in rural places. What is the importance of working with and uplifting local journalism in these types of places when it comes to health reporting?

I think it’s huge. This is my first job where I’ve been a national reporter. Before this, I’ve always been either a state level or a city level reporter. And I think those are the reporters and the outlets that local elected officials and other people in power in those communities know and recognize. And they’re the people who stay after a story. So when you really want to hold someone accountable at a local level, I think local reporters have a unique power to do that. As a national reporter, I can do certain things. I can elevate the conversation to a national level and get people informed on it. But I think a big part of my role, if I want accountability, is to support local reporters doing that work. 

So particularly with the opioid settlement money, it’s being spent differently in every county, every city, every state. So I can highlight a few places in a national story, but if I really want accountability on that money, the better way to do it is by helping local reporters cover in their community where they can stay on it, write an article and call the elected official. I think it’s huge for national newsrooms to support local outlets because those are the people that are most recognized and know what’s gonna make a difference in their community. I think that is a unique power. 

Where do you see the future of addiction/mental health reporting going?

I think mental health reporting has gotten a huge boost in recent years. I think during COVID more people in the public have been talking about mental health and they’ve been talking about mental health in schools and kids. And that has made a lot of editors realize this is an important area of coverage. Same thing with the addiction crisis. We’ve had, unfortunately, really high overdose rates since COVID. More people are paying attention to that. And that has an effect on the media, which then also affects public conversation. I think we’re seeing more importance given to it, which is great. I hope we’ll see a lot of this understanding from reporters that we need to be careful and thoughtful in how we report on these topics. And that because we are shaping the public conversation, it matters how we talk about it. If we’re giving solutions, what language we’re using — all of these things matter. I think there’s been more awareness but I think it needs to grow. 

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