A Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist stood behind the podium while students and young professionals lined up in the aisles to ask questions.
This was Harvard University’s annual Nieman Conference in the early 2000s, drawing writers from around the world, and one particularly memorable question came from an energetic 20-something reporter from southeast Asia.
“How can I write about human trafficking?” she asked.
Tom French, a rock star among journalists, sighed heavily.
“You don’t,” he said bluntly. “You can’t.”
French stretched his arms out as wide as they could reach.
“The topic of human trafficking is this big,” he said.
Then he put his hands close together with only a sliver of light showing in between. “A news story can only be this big.”
Don’t even try to write about human trafficking, he told her. Instead, find a victim of human trafficking and write about her.
“Shrink the story,” he said.
The Tulsa World kept his advice in mind while trying to tackle Adverse Childhood Experiences. Research can link traumatic events during a kid’s life to a wide range of adult problems, from crime rates to obesity. And Oklahoma’s high ACE scores can help explain why the state ranks high on so many lists of disparate social problems, from drug addiction to cancer rates.
But how can you write about child abuse and addiction and imprisonment and family disintegration and brain science, all at the same time? You can’t.
You can, however, write about a young man who survived abuse and a mother who overcame addiction and a football coach who mentors his players. You shrink the story to a human scale.
And that’s what Oklahoma will have to do to solve all these problems that are stemming from ACEs.
We can’t “fix” child abuse, but we can provide counseling for a victim. We can’t make drug addiction simply go away, but we can offer rehab to an addict. We can’t release everyone from prison, but we can consider alternative sentencing for a defendant.
It’s like the old dad joke: How do you eat an elephant?
One bite at a time.
Read the World’s series at bit.ly/ACESproject.