Los Angeles Times project uses puppets to tackle mental health concepts - Poynter

Los Angeles Times project uses puppets to tackle mental health concepts – Poynter

When Salma Loum first visited California, one of the first places she visited was the famous Hollywood Walk of Fame.

“You have this image in your head, when you are an immigrant, that it will be like the best in Hollywood,” recalls Loum, who is from Egypt.

The student expected glitz and glamour. What she found instead hit her hard. At every step of the iconic promenade, there was a homeless person. She wondered how she could help.

That visit was over a decade ago, but the experience stayed with Loum, who is now a data journalist. She still had questions about homelessness, such as: How do you define homelessness? Do you define the homeless in your neighborhood as your neighbours?

Loum’s desire to make an impact led her to launch the idea of “Securities,” a children’s news program run by puppets. In October, the Los Angeles Times, where Loum was a member of its Los Angeles Times Fellowship Class 2021-2022in partnership with the Bob Baker Puppet Theater to produce the four-episode video series focusing on mental health concepts. Two puppets — a palm tree named Palmy Nomanderson, who is an award-winning Jamaican journalist, and Lora Jacaranda, a parrot from Pasadena who is the “Headlines” reporter on the streets of Los Angeles — break down concepts for kids.

“All this education starts in youth, doesn’t it? When we’re young, we start developing all these skills that we put in our toolbox: talking about mental health, having all this open communication to be able to express our feelings, things like that,” said Loum, who is the creator-director of the series and now a freelance datajournalist. “And I felt like it was really imperative to teach our young people what it means to be homeless in the United States, especially in Los Angeles”

The project – part of the newspaper’s mental health initiative, For Your Mind – comprises four episodes: The first two focused on anxiety and homelessness. The remaining episodes to be released later this month will cover Fear and Grief. “Head-lines” offers coping skills and offers resources and conversation starters on topics to help adults engage young people in their lives.

For Jaclyn Cosgrove, associate mental health editor for the Los Angeles Times and executive producer of the project, “Head-lines” is a mix of mental health and media literacy. “Palmy is a news anchor and Lora is a street reporter. It also introduces children to these concepts, while it is also a mental health show,” they said. “I feel like there’s a layered approach that we were thinking about here. We wanted these kids to start understanding how journalists act, deep down, although those two are kind of silly.

Lora, the parrot reporter, was custom built for the series, according to Winona Bechtle, director of development and partnerships at the Bob Baker Marionette Theater. She said her team wanted to create a puppet that “could convincingly engage a ‘live’ conversation on the street. Palmy, she said, was created with “the classic television news anchor at the spirit – but with a sequence of sweetness and charm that we hoped would also be disarming and kind to our audience.” The puppets were intricately crafted: their bodies were made of foam, Palmy’s face and Lora’s beak were 3D printed , and Lora’s feathers were made of laser-cut felt.

Bechtle said they wanted the characters to be both interactive and reflect Los Angeles. “This project was an exciting opportunity to create two new puppets from scratch that really paid homage to LA, so we decided that the classic palm trees that line the streets of most neighborhoods and the quintessential green parrots that fly and scream all day were great characters to start with,” she said in an email.

This series, Bechtle said, was a true partnership. Every step of the way, she said her team tried to figure out how best to support the project. She added that her team felt the reporters at the Los Angeles Times “really wanted to push the boundaries of what’s possible when puppet meets news.”

Salma Loum, data journalist and creator-director of the “Head-lines” series, poses with the puppet, Palmy Nomanderson, on set.
(Photo courtesy of the Los Angeles Times)

In the episode about homelessness, Palmy is at his anchor desk about to deliver a story about a Santa Monica sea lion who became an internet sensation when he suddenly stopped. He says there’s something going on in his head, and an apparent producer’s voice causes the show to fade away. When they return seconds later, Palmy recounts how her dear friend, Eucalyptus, and her son had to move out of their apartment after she fell ill, lost her job, and fell behind on her rent. They are homeless now.

“I think it’s important to talk about our friends and all the homeless people in our community,” says Palmy.

The newscaster with bright green palm leaves on his head immediately dives into a story about homelessness. He brings Dr. Roya Ijadi-Maghsoodi, a child psychiatrist, on the show to explain what it means to be homeless and how to talk about it. “It doesn’t mean that anyone did anything wrong or wrong to become homeless, and in our city a lot of people become homeless just because they don’t have enough money. to pay the rent for where they live,” says Ijadi-Maghsoodi. “It also doesn’t mean it can happen to you or your family, but it’s something we can think of helping. “

Palmy then gives airtime to Lora, who reports live from the streets and interviews a boy named James. He shares his experience of seeing homeless people near some tents while out with his mother. James says he thought about waving at them, but he got nervous and walked across the street with his mum. He wants to know if he can do anything to help them. Ijadi-Maghsoodi then shares his thoughts. The show then cuts back to Lori, who has James ask the other kids what the house means to them.

Creating each episode involved a lot of behind-the-scenes work and coordination. Cosgrove, Loum and reporters Lila Seidman and Colleen Shalby consulted with children and parents in their lives.

“We all had to slow down and think, ‘What would a kid understand? “, Cosgrove said. “As a journalist, you have to think about your audience. And in this case, our audience was children. And we really wanted it to be content that would serve children first, but can -be that as adults, you would find yourself watching it too.

Loum said she would like to see “Head-lines” open a line of communication between children and the adults in their lives.

“Hopefully this will be helpful for someone so they don’t have to figure this information out when they’re in their 30s. They can just recognize it, be able to help to the best of their abilities when you’re 7 or 10,” she said. “I feel like it’s a step ahead of the issues. We can add all of these tools and our skills into our communication, and just be able to speak and have an honest conversation about issues in our society involving mental health.

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