Selden Ring 2012: Seattle Times reporters rewarded for methadone stories that revealed danger to patients

Sounding a note of optimism about the future of investigative journalism, Seattle Times journalists Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong spoke to USC Annenberg student reporters and faculty this week, at a lunchtime forum and an award ceremony where they accepted the 2012 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting.

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.

The three-part series “Methadone and the Politics of Pain” revealed that more than 2,000 people in Washington have fatally overdosed on methadone, a cheap painkiller that the state steered Medicaid patients toward – without requiring adequate warnings or acknowledging the unique risks of the drug, which can build up in a patient’s body for up to 128 hours and takes days to reach its peak strength.

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.

The stories had an immediate impact. Within days, the state issued an emergency public-health advisory warning and within weeks, the state 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.

In the award ceremony Friday, Berens recalled a letter that he said demonstrates an even more personal impact.

“We got a letter from a man who had read the series and calls his wife, who’s taking pain pills, and he realized she was in peril. At the bottom of the letter, he says – something I’ll treasure for the rest of my life – ‘you literally probably saved my wife’s life,’” Berens said. “And that’s why we do what we do.”

The series was sparked by an email from a doctor concerned about the untold dangers of methadone. Initially, Berens resisted the tip. He knew, he said, how many people equate methadone with heroin. His reaction was: “I’m not going to do a story about heroin.”

But he was drawn in by the data. By using death certificates, he was able to pinpoint how many people died from methadone, and the numbers were remarkable. When they looked more closely, they saw that the deaths occurred more often in low-income areas. It was a story that was “hidden in plain sight,” he said.

Berens says quantifying a story is always one of the first steps when embarking on an investigation. (His other tips are here.) To students gathered for a forum Thursday, he advised learning as much computer-assisted reporting skills as possible: “If you don’t know how to retrieve electronic data and read it on your computer, you’re blocked off from reams of public information for the rest of your life.”

But he also advised students not to get lost in numbers. The human element of a story is always more important.

“What I learned at the beginning of my career is the importance of observation and understand people’s motivation,” he said. “I think some reporters are afraid to expose themselves. You have to show people you care, and you have to care about what you do. I don’t think it’s harmful to show people your passion and honesty.”

Armstrong advised students not to ignore the work of government that goes on away from legislatures and City Council chambers. A key element of their story, aside from the data, were transcripts and audio recordings from a state advisory committee of doctors who have the power to decide which drugs the state should use – but had been ignoring warnings about methadone.

“One of the things that was important to this story was recognizing that a lot of decisions of public policy are made in faraway places by obscure committees we’ve never heard of,” he said.

Berens also encouraged USC Annenberg’s student reporters to pursue their goals. “You hear people saying this is a horrible time to go into journalism. I have to disagree. I think it’s a wonderful time to go in. There may be fewer investigative stories, but I would argue that the quality has gone up,” he said, referring to the stories that take advantage of the availability of electronic data.

Learning the trade, he said, now means learning effective computer-assisted reporting.

“We’re living in an electronic world, and getting the tools to navigate that electronic world is critical.” 

Project checklist