Seattle Times reporters Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong won the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting, while Eli Sanders of The Stranger won the Pulitzer in feature writing.
Seattle Times reporters Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong have been awarded the 2012 Pulitzer Prize in investigative reporting for their work exposing the state of Washington’s financially motivated practice of routinely prescribing a deadly pain drug for people in state-subsidized health care.
Another Seattle journalist, Eli Sanders, 34, associate editor of The Stranger, won the Pulitzer in feature writing for his story “The Bravest Woman in Seattle,” about a South Park woman who survived the brutal 2009 attack by Isaiah Kalebu that took the life of her partner.
In The Times’ three-part series titled “Methadone and the Politics of Pain,” Berens and Armstrong revealed that at least 2,173 people died in Washington state between 2003 and 2011 after accidentally overdosing on methadone, which for eight years was one of the state’s two preferred painkillers for Medicaid patients and recipients of workers’ compensation.
The Pulitzer citation honors Berens and Armstrong 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.”
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In an unusual move, the Pulitzer board awarded a second prize in the investigative-reporting category. The Associated Press also won for documenting the New York Police Department’s widespread spying on Muslims.
Series brought changes
The Times series reported that the poor have been hit hardest by the state’s reliance on methadone. While Medicaid recipients make up about 8 percent of Washington’s adult population, they account for 48 percent of the methadone deaths.
State health officials had disregarded repeated warnings about methadone’s risks, saying it was just as safe as any other painkiller.
Immediately after the series was published in December, state Medicaid officials sent out an emergency advisory warning of the unique risks of methadone. In January, the state told doctors to use methadone only as a last resort.
The warnings are likely to have an impact nationally, as Washington state’s pain program had been considered a national model.
The Pulitzer Prize is the highest award in journalism and also is awarded in literature and drama. This is The Seattle Times’ ninth Pulitzer. The previous was in 2010, when the news staff won the prize in the breaking-news category for its coverage of the shootings of four Lakewood police officers.
The methadone series was directed and edited by Times investigations editor James Neff. Other key contributors were reporter Justin Mayo, photographer Mike Siegel, multimedia producer Danny Gawlowski, photo editor Fred Nelson and desk editor Jerry Holloron.
The series previously had been recognized with the $35,000 Selden Ring Award from the University of Southern California’s Annenberg School for Communication and Journalism. It also won the Investigative Editors and Reporters Award, among others.
Berens, 53, joined The Times in 2004, from the Chicago Tribune. He has twice previously been a Pulitzer finalist, once for The Times and once for The Columbus Dispatch.
Berens said the project “underscores the importance and relevance of investigative reporting, and highlights the many brave people and fearless voices that put their trust in this newspaper to tell a difficult story that, all too often, was tragic and preventable.”
“I am honored and incredibly humbled that the newspaper’s work has achieved this recognition,” he said. “Many readers wrote and said that the newspaper series saved lives. I can’t imagine a richer accomplishment.”
Armstrong, 49, joined The Times in 2003, also from the Chicago Tribune. He has been a Pulitzer finalist four previous times, once for The Times, twice for the Tribune and once for a small paper in California. He was a key member of the Times team that won the 2010 Pulitzer in breaking news.
“To me, it’s about working at a place that has such a rich history of doing stories that matter in the community,” Armstrong said. “This is just another in a long line of stories that have that kind of impact.”
Armstrong said he was particularly gratified by an email sent by a man whose wife was in the hospital and whom the doctors wanted to give methadone. The man said he had just read the series and knew the risks. “He was convinced we saved his wife’s life,” Armstrong said. “That’s one I think I’m going to tuck away.”
Berens and Armstrong announced they would donate the $10,000 prize money to The Seattle Times newsroom for investigative-reporting training.
The Pulitzers are given out annually by Columbia University on the recommendation of a board of journalists and others. Each award carries a $10,000 prize except for the public-service award, which is a gold medal.
Executive Editor David Boardman said the paper is especially gratified to be recognized for investigative reporting, which long has been a hallmark of The Times.
“While we don’t do this work to win prizes, it’s wonderful to have our work recognized by our peers,” Boardman said. “Most important, though, this series will undoubtedly save lives here and elsewhere.”
Other media Pulitzers
Other Pulitzer winners announced Monday included The Philadelphia Inquirer, which was honored in the public-service category for its examination of violence in the city’s schools.
The Patriot-News in Harrisburg, Pa., won for local reporting for breaking the Penn State sexual-abuse scandal that eventually brought down legendary football coach Joe Paterno.
The New York Times won two prizes, for explanatory and international reporting.
The Huffington Post won its first Pulitzer, in national reporting, for its look at the challenges facing American veterans wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Tuscaloosa News of Alabama won the breaking-news award for coverage of a deadly tornado.
The judges this year declined to award a prize for editorial writing.
Mary Schmich, a longtime Chicago Tribune columnist, was recognized with the commentary award for pieces that “reflect the character and capture the culture of her famed city,” the judges said. Film critic Wesley Morris of The Boston Globe won the criticism award, for work the judges called “distinguished by pinpoint prose and an easy traverse between the art house and the big-screen box office.”
In photography, Massoud Hossaini of Agence France-Presse won the breaking-news award for his picture of a girl weeping after a bomber attacked a crowded shrine in Afghanistan. Craig F. Walker of The Denver Post won the feature-photography award for his work on an Iraq war veteran’s struggle with post-traumatic stress disorder.
Politico’s Matt Wuerker won the editorial-cartooning prize for work that poked fun at partisan fighting in Washington.
Information from The Associated Press is included in this story.