Returning to the Child Advocacy Beat  | American Journalism Review
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From AJR,   April/May 2013

Returning to the Child Advocacy Beat    

A Missouri reporter leaves the business beat to help with her paper’s emphasis on combating child abuse. Fri., April 26, 2013

By Rachel Rosenthal
Rachel Rosenthal (rrosenthal@ajr.umd.edu) is an AJR editorial assistant and a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism at the University of Maryland.     


"I'm back," Kathryn Wall wrote on the Springfield News-Leader Web site. "Well, technically, I never really went that far.."

It's not that Wall, 27, didn't enjoy her stint covering business for the paper. But she is glad she switched assignments to once again focus on child abuse and neglect in her Missouri hometown.

"She's known for her passion," says David Stoeffler, executive editor of the News-Leader, "She's the kind of reporter who has a real desire to write stories that get people's attention and get them talking and thinking. The reaction might be outrage or frustration, but she gets people involved."

Dave Iseman, assistant-managing editor of the paper, says that given Wall's previous work on child abuse, it made sense to put her back in a position where she could build on it. "She agreed with us that it would be a good move. We continually called on her to help out with breaking court news and more investigations of the state Children's Division and how it reacts to child abuse and death."

And so, April 6, Wall resumed her role as court and government writer so she could invest more of her time in keeping alive the paper's award-winning series, the Every Child project.

"I really enjoyed the business beat, but I still felt really drawn to covering child abuse and neglect." Wall says. "I really felt that that is where my strengths lie, and I could do some of my best work being on the court side. So when the opportunity came up to refocus our newsroom, I jumped at the chance."

The Every Child project directs public attention on the welfare of children in the Springfield area. Started in 2011, the project was the brainchild of Stoeffler during his first few months at the paper.

"There are some difficult things going on for the children in our community, and he thought we should focus on what it's like to be a child in the Springfield area," Wall says. "So, about eight months before the first piece ran [in January 2012], he approached me to be a part of the project's core group of journalists."

The 18-month-long series focused on child safety dealing with abuse and neglect, health and underfunded nutrition programs in local schools; poverty; and education.

To fully educate the team, the paper put together an Every Child advisory committee. It included city, county, school district and state representatives who helped educate the journalists.

From major front-page stories to in-depth profile pieces, the Every Child project's goal was to provide all of the region's children with the opportunity for a good life.

The investigative series won the Public Service Writing award from the Society of Professional Journalists as well as the Greater Good award from the News-Leader's parent company, Gannett. More important, it generated the Every Child Initiative, a group of community leaders who have pledged to advocate for change.

Reflecting on the experience, Wall says, "It was fantastic to be recognized by your peers, but it means so much for the community to have gotten behind the Every Child project."

While working on the series was gratifying, it also took a toll on Wall. "It's definitely emotional and definitely very draining, but people reacting to those stories and people demanding better for our children--I think that validates why I do it in the first place. It's tough, but there's a bigger purpose for it."

Wall's colleagues commend her ability to translate her passion for justice into her writing.

"From my perspective, she has an emotional reaction but she keeps her focus on the facts and on the details," Stoeffler says. "She gets documents and dives into the details. She's a documentary journalist more than a writer who is just looking for the hottest quote to build a story around."

John Wall, Kathryn's father and a former photojournalist at the News-Leader, describes his daughter as "sensitive yet as tough as a $2 steak. As a child, Kathryn was easily hurt, but she learned early that being sensitive was not a fault, it was a gift, because it does make you care."

Wall's father was the inspiration for her career in journalism when she was majoring in art at Missouri State University and it wasn't panning out.

"I loved my [art] classes but I was absolutely no good at it," Wall recalls, "My dad always talked really highly of his time in the newsroom, and he always liked my writing, so I took my first journalism class. I just fell in love with meeting new people all the time and telling their stories and learning everyday about something different. I caught the bug."

From college, Wall went on to cover breaking news at the News-Leader, where she developed an affinity for covering child abuse court hearings. Wall says she felt the subject had a lot of potential for narratives and that she knew that the power of the written word could incite policy change.

"In a community like ours, advocacy journalism is really important. I hear all the time from legislators that they don't know what's going on, and then they read stories from [the News-Leader] and they make a pledge to fix it."

While it's common for journalists to move around, Wall says she doesn't plan to leave her hometown or switch beats anytime soon.

"I find I write the best whenever I really am invested in a story and really care about it," she says. "If I have an emotional reaction, I think it translates into the story, then to the reader. And when they pick it up, I can only hope they will feel something as well."

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