The Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s “Chronic Crisis” series, in which Marquette University students teamed with a reporter to investigate mental health care in Milwaukee County and Belgium, has won a George A. Polk Award, one of journalism’s most prestigious honors.
The reporter, Meg Kissinger, was one of 15 Polk winners announced Sunday night. She will share the award for medical reporting with the Sacramento Bee for its reports on mental health issues.
Kissinger examined the county’s troubled mental health system during a nine-month fellowship with the J. William and Mary Diederich College of Communication at Marquette. Groups of graduate and undergraduate students contributed to the series, “Chronic Crisis: A System That Doesn’t Heal,” as reporters, filmmakers and research assistants. Polk judges praised the series as “so revelatory, analytical and conclusive that they amount to a definitive study of a system that barely functions.”
Kissinger’s time at Marquette preceded the Perry and Alicia O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism, which this academic year has an inaugural class of three distinguished journalists working with students to examine vital energy, environmental and health care issues.
Lori Bergen, dean of the Diederich College of Communication, congratulated Kissinger, a 2009 Pulitzer Prize finalist for investigative reporting, on the Polk honor. Bergen also thanked her for enabling many Marquette students to immerse themselves in the community and to make a difference via the series.
“Our students gained invaluable experience by working beside one of America’s best reporters to produce journalism that is affecting Milwaukee County and beyond,” Bergen said. “Her series is a tremendous example of experiential learning. We are not only thrilled that it has helped lead to the O’Brien Fellowship program, but is also earning the recognition from the industry it so richly deserves.”
In October, the O’Brien program hosted “Milwaukee County’s Mental Health: Solutions to a Chronic Crisis,” a two-day conference that included a community discussion about the issues the series brought to light. The series has led to many reforms, including several bills signed by Gov. Scott Walker and another measure aimed at creating a new governing body to oversee mental health care in the county.
Sixteen Marquette students contributed by examining potential solutions to the county’s mental health needs. The students, who took on the assignment as part of a journalism course taught by professional-in-residence Herbert Lowe, worked as teams of two to produce audio interviews and photographs of various field professionals ranging from police officers and nurses to psychologists and social workers.
Four additional students created two documentaries. One was based in Milwaukee and examined a man’s struggle dealing with a family member who was diagnosed with schizophrenia and later took his own life. The second documentary provides a contemporary story of how a Geel, Belgium, family took in adults with mental illness into their home. Geel has an 800-year history and is recognized internationally as a “model of community recovery” for individuals with mental illness. Danielle Beverly, visiting professional-in-residence in digital media, led the students collaborating on the documentaries.
In addition, six Marquette students worked with Kissinger as research assistants for the series. Last fall, several more students, led by instructor Julie Rosene and other faculty and staff, produced full-length videos capturing each of the conference sessions as well as “Solutions Journalism: The Whole Story,” a public affairs program that featured “Chronic Crisis” as an exemplar.
Focus on Public Service Journalism
The O’Brien Fellowship in Public Service Journalism resulted from an $8.3 million gift announced in February 2013. It is open to newsroom and independent journalists from across the country – and integrates Marquette students into their projects as assistants, giving them first-hand journalism experience. Bergen has described the fellowship as in line with the “teaching hospital model” advocated by many journalists and journalism educators nationwide.