The moment I stepped into the house, his face grew stern and he growled, "What is it you want? What is it that you really want?"....

the story that broke me

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The moment I stepped into the house, his face grew stern and he growled, "What is it you want? What is it that you really want?".

I stood there, not knowing whether I was allowed to come in or not.

I thought to myself, you can do this, you came here to do this story. you can do this.

------

Some time in August last year, an NUS professor approached me about a story. He sounded very keen on letting the media in on this one because his daughter was involved in it.

Her classmate had killed herself, and the whole school had tried to keep it under wraps. But after two boys had killed themselves in a space of a few days and months before the latest one happened (timeline is a bit foggy in my mind right now), tongues started to wag and parents turned to whatsapp to discuss. They were convinced that the education system had something to do with it. Stress? Pressure? Expectations?

The professor was incensed because according to him, there weren't proper systems in place to help students deal with stress and cope with their problems. There was only one counsellor for every student that walked in with a problem. He was particularly furious that the school did not carry out the right procedure in informing students that their classmate had died. According to him, their teacher had merely said that if anyone had problems, "please approach me. otherwise, please prepare for your examinations in two weeks' time".

I listened. And I was hooked. This was definitely a news story.

But I knew it was a difficult one. Suicide, a topic that's not often talked about in Singapore. Plus, it was a tall order for a junior person in the newsroom to take on. I was merely 2 months into the job at the time.

Nevertheless, I took it on and pushed for the story with my editor. She relented.

It took me a couple of months to firm up the story. What the story angle was. Who I should speak to.

More importantly, why I should even do the story.

I chased profiles. Parents whose child died. Siblings. Friends. My editor helped me find a profile through a conference about suicide. I managed to speak to the writer who wrote a book about his friend's suicide. I crafted my message in the most delicate way to convince him to speak to me.

Alas, the digital team got to him first. I lost that profile. My editor chided me.

I even hunted down an MP who was willing to speak to me. After coaxing and sending a personal email, he relented. During the interview, I asked him, what was the government going to do about the rise in youth suicides? What can teachers, parents and students do to help vulnerable youth?

Even after that interview, I didn't know what the news angle was. Do we go with the government's pov? As with many of our news stories? I was lost.

My editor provided an angle about the fact that students needed to build resilience. I disagreed, yet didn't know what other angle to go with. I was confused and flustered by the story's lack of development - yet, felt the pressure to deliver. Was I sending out the right message with this story?

Then, I managed to speak to a girl whom I had been conversing with for weeks, to try to persuade her to come on camera. Her sister had taken her own life just a few months ago.

No other media outlet had gotten to her and I wanted to. Because... her sister was that girl from the school the prof was talking about.

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I entered the house, clutching my bag and also, my heart.

The girl who I was messaging for weeks was in the house with her mom and dad. I sensed that the family was not too at ease with my presence.

Slightly terrified by the man who seemed to be seething with rage, I sat down, and started to introduce myself. Why I wanted to talk to them and what my story was about. They asked me questions about where and when the story was going to air. What use would it be to talk about their daughter's suicide.

Soon enough, they warmed up to me. They told me about their daughter - how she was a bright child. They showed me her accolades - top in science and english in primary school. How she didn't even need tuition. The fact that she was gifted. They also told me that she had the loveliest heart. How she wanted to be a vegetarian because she learnt how animals suffered before they were slaughtered. I had already known she had a kind heart, because I trawled through her blog and read her posts hungrily. She wrote about how she wanted to do more, yet felt so tired with the world - that she wasn't going to be young forever and that she was afraid she might lose that drive and heart to help people in need.

Something hit me during my conversation with their family and that was during the moment her sister revealed to me the contents of her farewell note.

What shocked me first, was her apology. Not to her family, but to her friends... that she was not brave enough to carry on living. That she was sorry for giving up the fight. Her sister told me that her sister's friends had the same suicidal thoughts. They had confided in her that they too, were troubled but what kept them going was each other. The saddest part was the fact that the day before she took her own life, a friend had come to her to seek advice. According to her mom, she had wanted to talk to that friend about her own problems, but in the end, she became the listening ear. Her sister said she'd sought help from her school's counsellor, but felt that the sessions did not work. Eventually, she stopped seeking help all together.

The next thing that I found out made me rethink my entire story.

The girl's sister told me that in her letter, she did not reveal what made her take her own life. But what she did say was... that it had NOTHING to do with studies. That she did not kill herself because she was stressed. And that if the media were to say it had anything to do with it, she warned them not to believe. She was adamant about this.

And that brought me to a deadlock. How was I to tell the story now? How accurate would it be?

------

Back in the newsroom, my editors hunted me for the story. "Where is your suicide story? When can I see it? Who have you spoken to? What is your angle?"

I was stressed as hell. Helpless also. I was not gum yet with any of my editors at that point of time. And I was terrified to ask for help.

I started to write my story any ways, and went ahead with the angle my editor said I should go with - that students need to build resilience.

I felt like I was losing my deadline because the story seemed so old and I was tired of talking about suicide by then. Is this story of relevance anymore? Who still wants to hear about suicide - it'd been weeks since the case happened and all media outlets had covered the topic.

Except me.

------

It was the day of the recorded interview with the girl's sister. I got my cameraman prepared. I told him to be sensitive to the grieving family. Her parents declined to be on camera and I respected their decision. I could also tell that they were not ready to speak about her death either.

Her sister spoke with emotion as she recounted the day she found out about her sister's death, how her family was coping, and what she loved most about her sister.

After the interview, we all sat down to read letters from the girl's friends given to the family and looked at old photos. The atmosphere was light. There were also times when there were tension - when I asked if they saw the signs. The blame game began - "why didn't you tell me she posted this photo on Instagram?" The regrets poured in - "i should have been able to tell that she was sad the day she walked upstairs to her room without talking to any of us."

But there was also, a lot, a lot, of love for this girl. The man who confronted me at the entrance of the house was actually the person whose heart grieved the most. Her dad had adored her - fetched her to school, supported her at events. And apparently, she was the reason for him to carry on living a good life. According to his wife, their daughter was the reason why he decided to change his unhealthy lifestyle - so that he could live to see his daughter do well in the future.

My heart was torn, I was wretched.

------

With the interview done, my story was finally complete. My deadline... I didn't know if there was still even one. Anywhos, I wasn't very proud of the story. I was perplexed, not knowing if I had fulfilled the criteria of a good journalistic story.

There are three rules to good journalism: A-C-T. Accuracy, Contextualisation, Timeliness.

I wasn't sure I hit all three or even, any of the three.

My editor told me, "I can tell, you're getting very emotional about the story. A journalist needs to be fair and objective. You are not."

I took it quite hard then. I didn't know what to do - whether to be a human or journalist first.

I handed in the story quite late. It didn't seem like any of the bulletins wanted to take my story. Nobody seemed interested in pushing it out either. Even I lost faith.

In the end, I made the call - to kill the story.

------

"This is for your family"

I handed this small bouquet of flowers to the family for it to be placed at the girl's altar. And then I left the house.

A week later, I called the sister to tell her I was dropping the story. She said it was okay, and that she told her parents about it. They too, thought it might have been a good thing for the family that the story wasn't published. A sense of relief washed over me.

Her sister arranged to meet me one last time again and we met to talk over at a Starbucks joint. I was happy she asked for the meet up, it gave me somewhat of a peace of mind.

We parted ways, but somehow I got the nudging feeling that I'll meet her again.

------

A sobering post to end 2017.

I'd been wanting to write this piece for a pretty long time - my struggle with this story and how it has affected the way I think about journalism now.

But I never felt like it was the right time to talk about it until now - took me a whole year to come to terms with it.

It's 'the story that broke me' because I had felt so much conflicting emotions.

I learnt so much about depression, suicide and how it affects the young. I believe some time in the future, I will revisit this topic and tackle it.

The story has also made me think about the way I operate as a journalist. It was so tough separating myself from a story that took a toll on my emotional and mental wellbeing. I'd always thought journalists needed to be empathetic to their profiles, and so I tried my best to give justice to the people who shared with me their stories.

The whole process was taxing, working with my editors, profiles, and feeling like I couldn't pull through. I thought I'd let a lot of people down - the NUS prof, the family, my bosses...

and even myself.

I had doubts about whether I was good enough to be a journalist, especially since I am one who listens and feels deeply about issues. I thought maybe I'd be better off telling stories about people instead of raising questions about issues.

But I have learnt, and I now understand why people say that sometimes, we need to separate ourselves from the stories that we put out.

As much as I felt deeply for my profile, I realised also that it was important to keep my emotions in check to tell the story objectively. Sure, I am human and I am inclined to stand for what I believe but I realised my role is not to campaign for causes.

I chose to be a journalist, one who speaks to people and disseminates accurate information... not one who simply tells people's stories through emotion without fact-checking.

I seek the truth.

In a world that can be so complicated and noisy... the truth can also mean different things to different people.. with people voicing their different opinions. And so, my job is to tell it as it is.

Of course, that's not to say that I no longer want to have empathy for my profiles, but I think emotions can be a double-edged sword - too much of it and I will cease to function properly in my profession and too little of it will not allow me to connect with people and my own stories.

Such a balancing act, as with so many things in life.

This was a painful lesson, but I think I've grown quite a lot in the past year. It has been a good run, 2017.

I sense 2018 will be crazy exciting. That I will be meeting and talking to a lot of people. And discovering a lot of new things. And most definitely growing a whole lot more as a journalist :)



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