Pulitzer-Award winner Michael J. Berens reveals what it takes to produce a piece of news worthy of winning the coveted Pulitzer Prize for investigative reporting, as he did in 2012. Berens worked with a colleague from The Seattle Times to expose Washington State’s distribution of a deadly pain prescription, in a three-part series “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.” Read on to see how he unlocked this story, as well as others.
IN OTHER NEWS: MICHAEL J. BERENS
By Stephanie Forshee
When Michael J. Berens got the call from a reader saying, “Your article saved my wife’s life,” he knew there could be no greater victory. And that’s saying a lot, considering the national recognition that came his way in 2012 for the esteemed Pulitzer Prize he shared with fellow Seattle Times reporter Ken Armstrong for their investigative reporting.
That phone call for Mike about the local Boeing engineer’s wife was far from an isolated incident. Mike says he and Ken received well over a thousand phone calls, letters and e-mails from locals wanting to express their gratitude for the series, “Methadone and the Politics of Pain,” which was published as a three-part investigative series in December 2011. Prior to the reporters’ collaborative effort, methadone was the “drug of choice” in the State of Washington for patients seeking a cheap painkiller. As the Times investigation revealed, though, this seemingly cost-effective pill came at a high price for the state: It had taken 2,173 Washingtonians’ lives since 2003.
But because readers took the time to read the articles in late 2011, many Washington residents’ lives were potentially saved. And, to Mike’s surprise, once-stubborn legislators took action by releasing an advisory to all of the state’s physicians about the drug and removing it from the top billing as first-choice pain prescription; it is now a last resort pill.
“This was incredibly gratifying. You put in all of this work and you’re actually making a difference in people’s lives,” Mike says. “That’s the very nature of what a newspaper is supposed to be doing.”
Starting with an unsolicited e-mail tip from a Washington healthcare professional, Mike read the message and considered if this could be true that state officials were downplaying the effect this drug had on their residents. But it didn’t matter so much what Mike thought; it mattered more what his initial findings on methadone turned out to be. Before he ever pitched the idea to his editors, Mike began deciphering the e-mail tip, which was full of medical jargon. Then, during what he refers to as his “hunting stage,” Mike furiously sent out public records requests, scoured through information and created databases of his own in order to prove the tip either credible or false. And when he broke down the note, he discovered relatively quickly that this investigation could be well worth it.
Mike realized, “‘OK, he claims that the patients are unnecessarily dying from methadone.’ Well, how many people died from methadone overdoses accidentally? So, when I took the death certificate database, I hunted around, and I saw, ‘Wow, there are thousands of people who have died accidentally from methadone overdoses. Then the question becomes, ‘OK, how many of those people were taking methadone for pain?’ It turned out about 98 percent of them were taking it for pain. Now I realized this [e-mail] was partially true. So now, is the state luring people to methadone as a way to save money?” From there, Mike read through transcripts from state committees and health administrators who choose which drugs to recommend for people on Medicare and Medicaid. “I saw transcripts with discussions where people were warning them that methadone had unique risks, and they kept ignoring those pieces of testimony. So I realized there is some truth to this, there are people who believe that the state is ignoring warnings in an effort to save money.”
With that, Mike presented his case in a proposal to The Seattle Times after he discovered that all of the points on his enterprise project checklist checked out. His criteria include finding answers to: Is it new? Is there potential for change or reform? Can the issue be quantified? Will readers care? Are there on-the-record victims to bring the story to life? Why this story, why now? Is there a unique source of information? Can I describe the story in six words or less? Do I care?
Once he was able to satisfy all of his own personal inquiries, his methadone piece gained approval and he dove right into the extensive research stages.
Like most of his past investigative stories, he estimated the finished product was roughly one year away from completion. Mike continued to aggregate even more public data he found within records from the state’s healthcare and government agencies. And since he was already able to connect the drastic amount of deaths to methadone prescriptions for pain, he searched for faces to put with the thousands of victims’ names.
He stumbled upon the riveting account of a young woman whose testimony oozed of everything front-page news stories were made of: “Two sisters critically injured in a car crash. Only one survives to tell about it; she had insurance and was prescribed oxycodone for the pain. The other, who had no insurance and was given methadone, dies.”
The surviving sister was willing to talk, so Mike was ecstatic for the potential impact from the parable he envisioned for his lede. Upon closer investigation, however, the story had some holes. As it turned out, alcohol played into the vehicle accident, the family had a history of felony convictions and the surviving sister grew less committed to telling her story on record. Ultimately, she wound up backing out.
But Mike didn’t pressure her to change her mind and go public. Rather he included her segment only briefly in his article without giving away all of the specifics about her.
“I understood,” he says. “It comes down to the honesty in why you are doing this. I said to her, ‘Thanks for sharing your story with me.’ It was powerful enough even to do one paragraph. So, every interview is different. The secret is to just be really honest with people about what you are doing, why you are doing it, why you want to help them and what they can get from the process as well.”
Losing one interview didn’t, by any means, point to a dead end. Mike knew he had to find new sources to fill out the greater anecdotal picture he wanted to portray to his readers. That’s when he found Sara Taylor, whose daughter Angeline Burrell had senselessly overdosed on methadone. Through a few introductory phone calls, Sara shared vital information with Mike about her daughter’s history with methadone – and critical to his story, medical records that he could only obtain through a victim or family member. Hidden in plain sight, the medical notes revealed that Angelina’s doctor warned her that the drug could result in death. Sure enough, two days later, the tragic prophecy was fulfilled.
As grateful as Mike was to have Sara as a key source on this story, he explains, “It’s not like Angeline Burrell was the only methadone victim out there in the State of Washington. There were thousands. This is just one person that we had identified correctly, and then her mother was willing to go with the story.”
He says it was important Sara understood from the get go that by participating in this article, she had the power to save lives. On the other hand, this article would live in the online world forever; it’s not something that can go away if and when she wanted it to. So Sara considered and she proceeded to speak with Mike in four separate phone conversations and several e-mail exchanges before meeting in person. Anyone who saw the headline story of The Seattle Times could instantly tell this had been an emotional interview. The lead photo shows Sara sitting at her dining room table over a photo album open to her daughter’s picture, while an unbearable flood of tears pours out, and her husband sits in the next chair also pained with grief.
One of the reasons Sara was open to a candid interview at her home with Mike is because, he says, “I don’t come in like a salesman. I’m not selling anything. I’m in her home, because she wants me there, and I’m really an observer.”
Incidentally, Mike is just as capable of pulling information from those who are less willing to talk than, say, an interviewee like Sara Taylor. In the methadone story, for example, there were health boards and state regulators to pin down. Albeit a more difficult type of person to crack, Mike always maintains his policy of complete honesty upfront. The difficulty there is often exacerbated when he discloses he’s an investigative reporter from The Seattle Times.
“They know we’re not running a feature story,” Mike deadpans. “I don’t dance around what I’m doing; I have a really successful strategy that’s worked well for me. I don’t have to provide the specific avenues of pursuit [with every source he interviews]… There are people on these stories who will camouflage what their real mission is. I don’t.”
As for those people in high places who are skeptical of participating in an interview with Mike, he tells them straight up: “’It’s not like I need you to tell us what’s going on. I want you to help make it accurate and balanced.’ That’s the pitch I make when someone perceives themselves as not being able to benefit from a story.”
After going solo for six months on the methadone project, it sank in just what he had gotten himself into. “At that point, I realized that there’s a lot to do here,” he recalls. “These stories are very technical, and you really have to be careful with every word, every description and every fact quoted. And it takes a real amount of work to get this thing condensed down to be fair and accurate.” So Mike approached his colleague Ken before proposing the idea to his editors, just to feel out if he had an interest. Fortunately, he did. “We worked really well with each other,” Mike says of the collaborative duo. “We can trust each other. I don’t have to worry about whether he is going to get the right documents… Both of us have different specialties that, when combined, create a really incredible team.”
Mike’s expertise comes in computer assisted reporting, as well as building and analyzing databases. “If there is a secret ingredient to my stories, that has almost always been the story revolves around a self-made database. I can go through death certificates and tell you the exact number of people who died in Washington this year. I know how to pluck out the people who died of methadone or how many died with benzodiazepam in their body. There is a database of in-patient hospitalizations throughout the state: I know how to read those medical codes and figure out who went in for heart surgery but had to have their sternum cut out, because there was an infection inside,” he says.
Ken’s strong suit, Mike says, is the conceptualization of the story: “It’s amazing how he is able to synthesize information down to really strong words, and he’s just a terrific writer.”
So while the preparation on the front-end was divided into separate specialties, Mike and Ken each contributed to the writing of the actual articles. “We weren’t sure how we wanted to write the first-day piece. So Ken wrote a version, and I wrote a version. With that, we figured out what kind of voice we wanted with the piece, what kind of approach. Ken’s first version I didn’t care for it a whole lot, and he didn’t care for my version a whole lot, so we went back and tried it again.”
From there, Mike and Ken each alternated writing sections of the three-part piece and stitching it together. In the end, Mike stitched most of Day Two together, while Ken stitched most of Day One. “His version versus mine for the top was much better. There is no pride in who does what. It’s all about the process and not the ego.”
Their partnership in telling a story worked so well that Mike actually partnered with Ken on another investigative piece in 2013. The project centers on the biotechnology pursuit of cancer drugs and the profiteering of companies trying to make the next big moneymaking treatment. “It’s an anatomy of how the small biotech companies are foisting each other trying to discover the next billion dollar cancer drug and then all the shortcuts and illegalities and people that are hurt hard as a result of this race,” he says.
The story ran in two stages this past November, but Mike was already knee-deep into the project back when we spoke in March. “You have to start thinking about writing the story early,” Mike says. Other factors to consider for such large investigative projects are how the data is presented on the page visually. Mike knows that just the story, especially with today’s technology and resources, isn’t enough for readers’ appetites. So he keeps up communication with staff photographers and graphic designers to make his stories visually appealing. That includes photos, videos for online versions of his stories, as well as graphics like the map in “Methadone” that displayed markers for each death in the area caused by an overdose of the drug.
“There are so many new tools out there to use,” Mike says. “I’m always looking for tools that will help me do my job better.”
And it’s those very types of resources that Mike strives to share with his colleagues. He proved that when he and Ken donated their $10,000 Pulitzer Prize winnings back to The Seattle Times so more reporters could receive training by the Investigative Reporters and Editors (IRE), an organization where Berens places a great deal of faith.
“My greatest hope is that one of our staffers will be sitting in a training session, and that proverbial light bulb goes off, and the next important story is born,” Berens told reporter Olivia Smith in an interview about the donation to his peers. “So much public information is now maintained exclusively in a digital format. Yet, so many reporters don’t know how to access and analyze it. Training is the key to unlocking stories.”
Prestige now automatically accompanies Mike’s name since he won the Pulitzer, an honor he was a finalist for twice before. But as meaningful as the award is to him, he doesn’t allow it to define his work.
“I know so many journalists out there who have done incredible work,” Mike says. “On any given day, there is work much better than mine, based on the fact that they got incredible results. And some of them have never received any award, much less a Pulitzer.”
At a ripe 34 years old, Mike’s work at The Columbus Dispatch scored him a spot on the 1995 Pulitzer Prize’s list of finalists for his contributions in beat reporting. His story about the municipal justice system’s discriminatory practices gained national attention after he had been with the paper for about 11 years.
He started out as a copy boy with the Dispatch, and then worked his way up to the police beat. It was there that Mike really learned what the newsroom was all about. Even then, Mike was grooming himself to be a solid enterprise reporter. But at a daily newspaper, each staff writer is expected to file stories everyday, even if they have more in-depth stories brewing on the back burner. “My editor’s idea of an enterprise story was one that took two hours to write instead of one,” Mike jokes, with more than a hint of truth behind his words.
Yes, those beginning days at The Columbus Dispatch were eye-opening for reasons other than just the pressures of strict deadlines. One of his first big scoops was with that newspaper, where Mike found himself faced by the barrel of a .22 caliber handgun.
The reporters on the police beat had been hearing rumors of a major police investigation, and the alleged murder suspect was a William Wickline. “William was already in jail on another charge, and they were looking for the connection of a whole bunch of murders, where someone had chopped up the bodies and then disposed of the body parts.”
So Mike chummed up with local investigators and snagged the name and address of Wickline’s girlfriend Teresa Kemp. He took that information and went for it. Teresa’s house was along the route Mike took every night at about 10:30 or 11 p.m. on his way home from work. So after about three weeks of failed attempts from knocking on her door, Teresa finally answered for Mike, and she was, of course, pointing a gun at him.
Mike immediately noticed she was high on drugs. So he was more concerned she would accidentally pull the trigger, rather than shoot him down maliciously.
“She made me take most of my clothes off. I had to take off my shirt, my sweater. She took my wallet to check my ID. She looked at my library card, my driver’s license; I had an ID from the newspaper. She eventually put the gun down on the coffee table between us, and she started talking once she realized I was a reporter,” Mike says. “I wasn’t scared. I mean, the only thing that scared me was my own stupidity. Even when she was holding a gun on me at the door, it wasn’t like she was screaming at me, ‘I’m going to kill you. I’m going to kill you.’ It was her trying to decide whether she could trust me or not. Once she determined I wasn’t sent to kill her, then she started to relax.”
And once that gun was down, Mike shares, “She talked very calmly about all these victims and how they stored their body parts in garbage bags and how the dogs ate it through the night. She went into great detail about it.”
The next morning, Mike was back in the newsroom by 5 a.m. to share his encounter with a more senior reporter who wrote a “first-hand account” of the incident on Mike’s behalf. “It was one of the biggest scoops I ever had. This was a huge crime story, and we were the first to break it.
“I was so exhilarated that I was going to break this story, that I ignored the danger.” But Mike learned two lessons in that one day: “Never go to a home alone, and always tell an editor if you are going to do something stupid like go out to the house of the girlfriend of a man that’s accused of murder.”
It was in those same early days, too, that he began honing his skills even outside of work hours. He joined Investigative Reporters and Editors, or IRE, and when he attended his first conference about investigative reporting, he knew he’d never consider another profession.
“As a young journalist, going to my first IRE conference was like seeing God,” Mike says with a faint laugh. He was astounded to find, “There are thousands of people just like me, and they want to do better work… I got to talk to people like Eric Nalder, who was a two-time Pulitzer winning, investigative reporter. He didn’t know me, but I was able to sit down in a bar and talk to him and hear him talk. He was so cool. That really drove me, and I saw there is a higher purpose here. Here are a whole bunch of people that have the same higher purpose, despite whatever small-minded editor or colleague I worked alongside wanted to do.”
Mike built up his network through more conferences and also with the national recognition he already had achieved as a finalist for the Pulitzer. The Chicago Tribune was one such paper to acknowledge his accomplishments, and he went on to work there for about seven years investigating healthcare. “Going to The Chicago Tribune was very seductive, because I got to travel the world and the country,” he says. “I’d get national projects, so I’d go coast to coast visiting hospitals: It’s intoxicating, it’s hard and it’s challenging.”
On the other hand, he was up against some heavy-hitting national news outlets to break those stories. “In the back gate, I am looking over my shoulder at the Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, the L.A. Times to make sure they are not on the same track I’m on,” Mike shares of the pressure from the harsh competition.
While he was, no question, up for the task of continuing to work with the Tribune, he feared he had officially become a workaholic. He was constantly at the office putting in long hours – getting in by about 8 a.m. and not leaving until at least 9 p.m., sometimes even until midnight, add on that his commute which was about an hour each way. “I enjoyed it until I had two children,” Mike says now.
It just so happened that David Boardman, executive editor and senior vice president for The Seattle Times, had been pursuing Mike for years. So with that in mind, Mike finally considered that position in Seattle. “They have some of the premier projects in the country at The Seattle Times. I was in my seventh year at the Tribune. Projects were getting less emphasis than ever before, and they were kind of moving away from the hardcore investigative reporting at the time. And so I talked to David and said, ‘OK, I might be ready to think about Seattle.’ I went out there, I took a tour.” And just like that, Mike’s mind was made.
“I took a pay cut, but it was for the quality of life,” he explains, adding that the differences in cost of living somewhat even out anyway. “I am able to spend more time with my family and still work successfully and intentionally behind the stories that I would like to do. So it’s a better balance here… Seattle gave me the platform to do the kind of work that I think is important and that I excel at. It doesn’t matter what paper I work at as long as I get to do the work that I think is important.”
And yes, after close to 30 years as a reporter, Mike still finds his work to be meaningful and exhilarating. At the Times, he’s reported on captivating stories that have invoked action from regulators and lawmaking agencies – like his IRE-winning piece in 2012 “Glamour Beasts” about how “zoos’ efforts to preserve and propagate elephants have largely failed,” as well as his investigation in 2010 about adult family homes, “Seniors for Sale,” that made him a Pulitzer finalist for the second time and a winner of the acclaimed Bingham Prize and the Barlett and Steele awards.
“I can’t imagine doing anything else,” he gushes. “You read so many interviews of journalists out there, and they’ll talk about that moment when they were first exposed to a newsroom environment and how you feel that magic and that electricity. And it’s true. When you’ve been exposed to a newsroom and you go into any other kind of workplace, you realize it’s just not the same. It’s that combination of feeling like you’re doing something important but having this incredible amount of freedom and heart; that’s the elixir of the newsroom. I couldn’t imagine finding a more exciting professional workplace. The newspapers have undergone and are undergoing a significant change, not always for the better. So it’s tough to stay focused on what the real purpose of what we’re doing is. That’s how I maintain my enthusiasm, knowing that ‘yeah, this is important.’ What we do is not just a job. There are other people who are dependent upon the kind of job that you do.”
—————————————————————————————————————————Thanks for reading. Check back in February for the next monthly edition of In Other News: Reporters on Reporting. In the meantime, drop me a line and let me know what you think.