How I Reported the Story: High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation

Read how Sydney Rainwater and Navya Shukla reported this piece, High need, low accessibility: Oglethorpe County residents face barriers to mental health care, even as teens and schools are willing to have the conversation for The Oglethorpe Echo, which was written through our participation with The Carter Center’s Mental Health Parity Collaborative. The collaborative is a group of newsrooms that are covering stories on mental health care access and inequities in the U.S. The partners on this project include The Carter Center, The Center for Public Integrity and newsrooms in select states across the country. Editors included Nora Fleming, The Carter Center’s newsroom collaborative manager, and UGA Professor Andy Johnston, editor in residence for The Oglethorpe Echo. The students also consulted during the reporting process with Sofi Gratas, a former Covering Poverty contributor who graduated from the UGA College of Journalism and Mass Communication and now participates in the collaborative covering rural health and health care for GPB (Georgia Public Broadcasting).

Their reporting process ran from October 2023 through January 2024, with February and March 2024 devoted to editing and gathering images. The story was published in The Oglethorpe Echo on March 21, 2024. That day, the paper received a letter to the editor saying, “I congratulate the Echo on featuring a story on the difficulties and necessity of mental health care which you featured on the first page of this issue.  My late wife suffered from severe mental health issues in her later life and the burden of them on both her and her family was substantial.”

Going into this story, my writing partner, Sydney Rainwater, and I were aware of the statewide need for better mental health resources and what the role our story could play in highlighting this need in a smaller community like Oglethorpe County. However, the challenge lay in finding the voices that could do the story justice. With an issue as sensitive and personal as mental health, and with a large part of the issue being the lack of conversation surrounding it, it took time to find the information and the sources that would pull our story together. 

What helped us the most was relying on the community we were trying to cover. Because Oglethorpe County is so tightly knit, each source we talked to pointed us in another direction, connected us with someone new, or told us something we were missing. Even though we ended up interviewing an immense number of sources, and many of them couldn’t make it into our final story, each conversation painted a clearer picture of the issue we were addressing and gave our story more direction.

In-person interactions, such as when I visited Oglethorpe County Elementary School to take photos for the story, allowed me to see the work being done in the county and make a personal connection with the topic of mental health. Coming out of that classroom, where the students had spent the past hour exploring mental health strategies in such an open, welcoming environment, reassured me that the story we’d spent months of time and effort on mattered, and that it needed to be told.

The importance of relying on others for this story extended to my partner, Sydney, and our editors. Tackling such a complex topic, reaching out to as many people as we did and incorporating so many perspectives into our final product would not have been possible without the constant trust and teamwork between all of us throughout the semester. —Navya Shukla

My writing partner, Navya Shukla, and I started working on this piece almost as soon as we joined the Covering Poverty team last fall. From the start, we knew how impactful this story could be to the Oglethorpe County community and how important it would be to the larger mental health conversation. We each put forth our absolute best efforts because we believed in the story.

There were certainly challenges. Finding an informative yet positive perspective was a struggle at first. We interviewed countless sources, many of whom didn’t end up in the final product, because talking about mental health is still not easy. As time-consuming as it may have been, I found that the more in-person, casual conversations we had with sources and community members, the more secure I felt in the direction of the story. 

Collaboration was the name of the game for this one. Our story would not be the same had we not leaned on each other for ideas, gathered advice from our editors and talked with as many sources as possible. —Sydney Rainwater

The Tip Sheet

This tip sheet serves as a tool for journalists to use while pitching, writing, producing and editing stories on poverty. While this list doesn’t include every aspect of the subject, it can help you brainstorm how to approach your next story. Here are 10 best practices for covering poverty:

  1.  Get the data and find key documents. 

Develop your story from statistics. Gather key documents and data, then connect the numbers to a socioeconomic characteristic related to your beat or a timely issue. After that, compare state and national statistics to what you find to put your story into a greater context.

These resources offer data and key documents. 

You can find even more essential data sets here. The facts you find can reveal gaps in the community you’re covering. From there, it’s your job to illustrate those gaps in your storytelling. 

To start, look at the level of federal funding intended to boost a community’s economy. You can find that information on and Also, research how a county is allocating stimulus funds on ProPublica. It’s important to follow the flow of money from the government to agencies, trickling down to businesses and consumers. 

  1. Commit to thorough sourcing. 

Interview local experts about how poverty affects their community. Think big picture. Ask questions that speak to how the income divide can affect multiple areas of a person’s life. 

After you interview the experts, get to know the people who are experiencing the topic you’re covering. If people are willing to speak with you, find out about the community they live in, figure out the cost of their average expenses and how their environment affects their standard of living. Talking to real people will bring your data to life. 

“I think the main thing is to get beyond the official sources. Go talk to people at the barber shops and beauty salons. Talk to the people who run convenience stores. They’re the ones who know the people who are coming in.”

– Grey Pentecost, Former Graduate Research Assistant
  1. Localize your angle. 

If you aren’t covering poverty in your own community, find reporters who live in that area and use them as a source for gaining a deeper understanding of public opinion within that community.

It is important for audiences to understand poverty is happening where they live, not just in other parts of the country. 

While national politics can feel distant to audiences, local politics focuses on how resources can be delivered and distributed within a community. The poverty rate of a community directly impacts local government services such as the police, schools, hospitals and any other form of social services. 

  1. Understand the terminology. 

Learn how to speak the language. Poverty is relevant to several beats. Become an expert on your beat to understand its relationship with poverty.  For example, government spending involves complicated language. You have to know the difference between funds that are “awarded” vs. funds that are “allocated,” or what a “cost-plus contract” is. If you don’t know what these terms mean, then you won’t be able to understand the impact they may have on communities below the poverty line. 

Understanding terminology is the first step to asking the right questions, especially when you’re interviewing local experts. Communicate in the expert’s language, so they can give you feedback in the appropriate context. 

  1. Narrow your focus. 

Poverty is a complex issue. Reporters can’t cover every element of poverty in one story. Find one or two specific areas to focus on and commit to in-depth reporting. Here’s Yale School of Medicine Science Writer, Kathleen Raven, explaining how she approached reporting a story on a healthcare clinic in Greene County, Georgia: 

“I knew that Greene County, Georgia was a place of incredible wealth disparity, as evidenced by its Gini coefficient, but that in and of itself did not make for an interesting story. I needed to find a way to present the story through a very specific lens, which I decided would be community healthcare.”

Studies have proven that there is a connection between poverty, crime and mass incarceration, education, health and other regularly-covered beats. Find ways to incorporate poverty-related narratives into other beats rather than covering these stories by themselves. 

This enables reporters to provide in-depth coverage on poverty within a specific topic area while still remaining holistic in their overall approach. Journalists don’t have to narrow their poverty coverage to specific beats, but it is a helpful tool to stay concise in their reporting. 

  1. Incorporate multimedia elements. 

If you’re writing a written article, take your reporting to another level by adding multimedia elements. Create a story where your readers can not only read about poverty, but give them an opportunity to see and hear what poverty feels like through photos, graphics, video and audio components.

Read this Chattanooga Times Free Press series on poverty called “The Poverty Puzzle.” Notice how the stories are full of photos, infographics and data visualizations that explain what’s happening beyond the words written on the page. Using multimedia elements allows the audience to connect with what’s happening in a story and makes their experience more tangible. 

  1. Connect the dots.

While reporting on poverty,  it’s easy to fall into the habit of reporting facts without pulling all the pieces together.  Focus on relating public support to policy initiatives that could impact low income residents. This will demonstrate a direct connection on how the public affects poverty, positively or negatively, by their actions. 

One of your responsibilities as a reporter is to separate persistent poverty, which is experienced over a longer period of time, and episodic poverty that is onset by temporary economic downturns.  By outlining poverty’s many shapes, its past forms and its future trajectory helps audiences understand how it permeates into many aspects of life. 

  1. Time it up. 

Like all news, no matter the topic, newsworthiness shapes the public’s perception on an issue. When people are experiencing a collective worry about the economy and community welfare, people’s attention is more receptive to reading on topics. The timing and significance of poverty is determined by the overall state of the economy.  Concern about how families are faring during these times of uncertainty is on the minds of the public.

When timing is off for an article, it dispels a feeling of urgency and breeds complacency in an audience. Reporters can help facilitate change by giving voice to issues and raising questions that other people may be too afraid to address.  

  1. Widen your audience.

Audiences are drawn to stories they can relate to. People experiencing poverty is a small part of the audience you should be trying to reach. Stories on poverty should be relevant to everyone.   

“Readers who are not poor can relate especially to stories in which they could imagine themselves if their luck ran out, or if they were born into different circumstances,” said Washington Post columnist E.J. Dionne Jr.

“And because many people these days who aren’t poor feel under various financial pressures, there are ways to link their situations to the situations of the poor.”

Income and class will continue to influence both local and national politics in America. 

  1. Share solutions. 

Reporting on poverty should exist to inform and ignite action. This can not be done without incorporating solutions-based journalism into the narrative. The Solutions Journalism Network defines this as “character-driven, but focuses in-depth on a response to a problem and how the response works in meaningful detail.”

Adding solutions to a story can take many forms, such as including links to resources, contact information of the sources included in the piece, highlighting ways people can become involved and including information about upcoming events. From analyzing data to sharing solutions journalists have an opportunity to make an impact through their reporting on poverty. Allow these tips to guide you into creating quality content that is relevant to your audience and accurately conveys how poverty affects your community.  

Kelsey Coffey and Lillie Beck graduated in fall 2020 with journalism degrees from the University of Georgia.