AJR  Features
From AJR,   February/March 2012

An E-Mail Triggers a Major Series   

How the Seattle Times reported its award-winning look at the dangers of methadone. Thurs., March 15, 2012.

By Alexis Gutter
Editorial assistant Alexis Gutter (agutter@ajr.umd.edu) is a student at the Philip Merrill College of Journalism.     

On November 18, 2010, Michael J. Berens of the Seattle Times opened an e-mail that simply began: "Tony Shapiro suggested I contact you."

Berens had no way of knowing that the single tip from a Washington state pain specialist would lead to many months of reporting, a significant policy change and a share of the crown jewel of awards for investigative journalism: the Selden Ring.

Berens, an accomplished Times investigative reporter, had just come off an award-winning series―for which Tony Shapiro, a Washington attorney, was a source―when he read through the dense, jargon-rich e-mail from Dr. Michael Schiesser regarding the prevalence of accidental methadone overdoses in the state.

Methadone is a commonly prescribed painkiller, but Berens and Ken Armstrong, who joined the project about halfway through, uncovered its serious drawbacks.

Methadone is cheap, and, since 2003, Washington had been using it as the first option for patients with state-subsidized health care in lieu of more expensive, more predictable drugs in the same narcotic class, like OxyContin and vicodin.

The series found that while all of these drugs belong to the class called opioids, methadone dissipates into the body at a different rate than the others and needs to be monitored more carefully. While the drug is often effective, it reacts differently in different bodies and should not be the first-choice drug for all.

Thanks to the series, it no longer is in Washington.

In the opening article of their three-part series, "Methadone and the Politics of Pain," Berens and Armstrong reported that "Within that group [of narcotics], methadone accounts for less than 10 percent of the drugs prescribed but more than half of the deaths."

Furthermore, Berens and Armstrong found that deaths attributed to methadone are more likely to hit low-income people in Washington. While only 8 percent of the adult population in the state benefits from Medicaid, recipients represent 48 percent of methadone deaths, the Times reported.

"When you first hear the story, you don't know what to make of it," Berens says. "I didn't realize [methadone] was a painkiller. I always associated it with drug use."

This common misconception created a challenge when it came to finding sources willing to go on the record.

In his search, Berens tirelessly pored over death certificates looking for people who had died from methadone overdoses. But the record search was only the tip of the effort afterward came the cold calls.

"So many tragic tales didn't go on the record because [sources] feared what the public would think because Mom, Dad or Sister was taking methadone," Berens says. "I talked to at least five moms and dads who had adult children who died and were too scared to come public because it would be misconceived."

Sometimes this hurdle changed the execution of the story.

Take the case in which two sisters were hospitalized after a car crash. One had private health insurance and was treated with OxyContin. The other, on Medicaid, received methadone. The sister on methadone overdosed and died.

Berens had an on-the-record account from the surviving sister and was set to make this story the signature case of a piece, but then the family got involved and was against the account going in the paper. Berens, who generally avoids anonymity in stories, made an exception and printed the account on background.

Such time-consuming roadblocks were common during the reporting for the series. So in July 2011, after Berens had been working on the story for half a year, he brought Ken Armstrong, a fellow investigative reporter, on board to help finish the job.

"He's an incredible reporter," Berens says. "We've worked together before and mesh perfectly."

Armstrong's chief role in the partnership was to write the narrative. "For me, the challenge was finding a way to tell the stories in a way readers would appreciate the significance and read from the lead to the final period," he says.

The story accomplished its purposes: not to ban methadone, but to educate the public, change state policy and keep the text interesting. While methadone is still on the state's preferred drug list, it is no longer the first choice drug for everyone in fact, it is now considered a last resort.

"The fact is, [methadone] has helped many people with pain and is a very good drug for pain, but it reacts differently and needs to be closely monitored," Berens says. "You can't just blindly supply it. You have to watch your patient. That was the goal of the story, and it was achieved."

The Selden Ring Award judges praised 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," according to a press release from the USC Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which administers the prize.

The award, presented by Annenberg for the past 23 years, includes $35,000 for the winners for producing outstanding investigative work that directly leads to results.

David Boardman, executive editor and senior vice president of the Seattle Times, was a member for the Selden Ring jury. Ring judges don't participate in discussion of their own news organizations' work. When the story was in the final stages of consideration, Boardman withdrew from the jury entirely. "This series is already saving lives in the state of Washington, which is far more important than any prizes we might win," Boardman says.

Adds Armstrong, "It's one of those awards that really means something. It was a good experience, and I'm proud of the paper for taking on the story." Berens says winning the award was humbling. "I'm in the company of so many great journalists out there," he says. "You feel like you're in a club. There are so many dedicated people out there who are plugging away. It's heartening."

The independently owned Seattle Times has long been known for its commitment to investigative and enterprise reporting. 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."