When is it relevant to publish personal details of someone’s life? How does that relevance change if someone is part of a political family?
The details in last week’s “A story of overcoming,” about Jordana Steinberg’s battle with a severe childhood mood disorder, were deeply personal and resonated broadly with readers. While Jordana, 20, is somewhat new to the public spotlight, her family is not: She is the daughter of state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and B’nai Israel Temple cantor Julie Steinberg.
The Sacramento Bee has reported many stories, editorials and columns about Steinberg as his political career progressed from city councilman to what is considered California’s third highest ranking political job. Children of politicians, however, don’t automatically become fodder for news stories. The story about how Jordana’s childhood became a mental health battleground is one The Bee told only after Jordana – now an adult – decided she wanted to go public. She was ready and stable and said to reporter Cynthia Craft, “I want to be the person who helps other people.”
Jordana’s decision took her private battle public in a way that allowed readers to see a bit of themselves or their family in her childhood behavior. That was her goal. In hours spent with Craft recounting her rage and her struggle for calm, she said something we’ve heard confirmed repeatedly by readers the past week: “Everybody knows somebody who has something.” They have some bout of mental illness that affects not just themselves but everyone around them.
Craft first approached the Steinbergs about Jordana’s story two years ago. She met with Jordana and left her contact information. Whether Jordana wanted to tell her story would be up to her.
A full year later, Jordana called “out of the blue” to say she did, Craft said. Craft spent hours with the family and Jordana’s therapist, sometimes in a group but also individually. She heard different perspectives, different details. “The whole family was so candid it just amazed me,” Craft said.
That doesn’t mean we published every single detail, which gets to my opening question: When is it relevant? And how do the ground rules differ between coverage of a politician and coverage of the mental health of that politician’s daughter?
Jordana’s mental health adds important context to her father’s career. He has been a strong advocate of public funding for mental health programs and was the co-author of a 2004 initiative that placed a 1 percent income tax on millionaires to provide that funding. He never used her story to push that agenda. Instead, some of his closest allies told Craft last week they didn’t know the extent of Jordana’s illness until they read her story.
The Bee political bureau’s ground rules for covering Steinberg are the same as for other powerful people – our journalists approach coverage with an aggressive watchdog philosophy.
Craft and Bee Senior Editor Deb Anderluh approached Jordana’s story far differently. Their goal was to provide as many personal details as needed to tell the story honestly, without being sensational. While the adults in the family could make their own decisions about what to share – Jordana and her parents – we didn’t want Jordana’s decision to go public to force her younger brother, Ari, 17, to be in a spotlight he didn’t choose. We instead focused the story on the adults.
Generally we expect politicians to be well aware of the effect of media coverage. Indeed, Craft said that Sen. Steinberg played devil’s advocate with Jordana during the reporting, pointing out various scenarios that might play out with news coverage.
For story subjects who aren’t familiar with the media, we have a different approach. We try to be open and instructive about the possible effect of coverage on their lives. This story was complicated because even though the Steinbergs are a political family, Jordana’s mental health stabilized only in recent years.
Jordana’s childhood behavior left scars, physical and mental. It challenged the Steinberg marriage. It left a young Ari keeping his needs to himself to limit pressure on his mother. The details the family shared were unvarnished and raw. The decision Craft and Anderluh faced was: which to use?
“When Darrell told me three times on three separate occasions about holes in the walls (from Jordana’s rages),” Craft said she knew it was detail she would use. “I think a public figure doesn’t say something three times without being OK with having it out there.”
With the most personal of details, Craft made sure Jordana and her parents knew they would be in the story, so they would be emotionally prepared.
Judging from the comments Craft and others at The Bee received this week, Jordana accomplished what she wanted by deciding to go public with her story.
One reader wrote about her child’s struggle with mental illness. Over the years, she said, she ran into the Steinbergs at public events, and neither family knew the other’s struggles. “Your story helps us all talk more openly.”
One writer simply said, “Wish I’d read your piece 40 years ago. As a stepfather it would have helped a lot.”
Another reader who detailed his family’s story but asked for privacy said he wanted to thank Jordana “for going public.”
“I’m sure there are many other families like ours who suffered in silence and withdrew from the ‘normal’ family activities and events of childhood out of fear of the whispered comments … on witnessing out-of-control emotions. Thanks for bringing mental illness out of the closet.”
These comments answer the question of relevance. The personal details shared by Jordana and her family looked familiar to many families. It allowed them to see they were not alone. It increased public awareness of the toll of mental illness on many families in our community. Even those with considerable political power.