Seattle Times project investigating deadly effects of methadone wins 2012 Selden Ring Award

Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of The Seattle Times have been awarded the 2012 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, for their three-part series “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.”

The $35,000 annual award, which has been presented for the past 23 years by the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg, honors the year’s outstanding work in investigative journalism that led to direct results.

Selden Ring Award judges lauded Berens and Armstrong for: “Thorough and groundbreaking reporting on how more than 2,000 people in Washington state have fatally overdosed on the painkiller methadone. ‘Methadone and the Politics of Pain’ showed how the state steered Medicaid patients toward methadone despite repeated warnings about its risks. The drug saved the state money because it is a cheap painkiller, but poor patients paid for the savings with their lives.”

Before the series, methadone was designated by the state of Washington as a preferred drug to treat chronic pain. “Many low-income patients were given no other choice. Many patients were not told that the drug harbors unique risks and that they could stop breathing and die. Some doctors dubbed it the ‘silent death,’” Berens said in an email after the announcement of the award Monday.

The impact of the series was immediate and dramatic. Within days, the state issued an emergency public-health advisory warning of the unique risk of methadone as a pain drug. Within weeks, the state also declared methadone no longer the preferred drug and for the first time warned patients that the powerful prescription drug should only be used as a last resort.

"The Selden Ring Award exemplifies the rich tradition of investigative journalism and underscores the vital role of newspapers when it comes to saving lives, driving reform and holding powerful institutions accountable,” Berens said.

The series exposed serious problems that otherwise might not have come to light, said Geneva Overholser, director of the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg.

“It's deeply satisfying that a family-owned metro, The Seattle Times, has won this recognition for their fine work on a little-understood public-policy issue.”

Other finalists for the 2012 Selden Ring Award were:

"Billions to Spend," by Michael Finnegan, Gale Holland, Paul Pringle, Doug Smith and Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times, a six-part series on how cronyism, careless planning and shoddy workmanship led to the loss of tens of millions of a $5.7 billion-program to rebuild the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District.

"Unfit for Duty," by Anthony Cormier and Matthew Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, an investigation that found thousands of Florida police officers remaining on the job despite arrests or evidence of crimes that could have landed them in prison.

“We were impressed by the range of scope and ambition in the entries we got this year. Watchdog journalists all over the country were looking into everything from policemen with criminal records to corrupt public officials, from sexual abuse in sports to waste in public projects,” said Sheila S. Coronel, co-chair of the judges’ panel and director of the Stabile Center for Investigative Journalism at Columbia University.

Entries for the 2012 Selden Ring Award hailed from a wide range of news organizations, Coronel said. “We had excellent submissions from small weekly newspapers as well as emerging nonprofit investigative centers, from wire services that not too long ago didn't do much investigative reporting to newspapers with a storied history of accountability journalism.”

Besides Coronel, those serving on the panel of judges were: David Boardman, executive editor and senior vice president of The Seattle Times; Jeff Leen, assistant managing editor for investigations, The Washington Post; Dori Maynard, president of The Maynard Institute; Davan Maharaj, editor of the Los Angeles Times; and Tom Negrete, managing editor of The Sacramento Bee.

Judges were recused from discussions of their own organizations’ work.

UPDATE: On April 16, 2012 Berens and Armstrong were awarded a Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting. The Pulitzer citation honors the two for "their investigation of how a little known governmental body in Washington State moved vulnerable patients from safer pain-control medication to methadone, a cheaper but more dangerous drug, coverage that prompted statewide health warnings."

Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting 
2012 winner: "Methadone and the Politics of Pain"
2012 finalist: "Billions to Spend"
2012 finalist: "Unfit for Duty"