RTDNA Announces Winner for 2012 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism

For Immediate Release: October 3, 2012

Contact: Ryan Murphy, ryanm@rtdna.org

WASHINGTON – The Radio Television Digital News Association announced on Wednesday the winner of the 2012 Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism.

Danny Gawlowski and the staff of The Seattle Times including Michael J. Berens, Ken Armstrong, Justin Mayo, James Neff, Katrina Barlow and Genevieve Alvarez were named the winners of this year’s award for the piece,  “Methadone and the Politics of Pain,” which also won a 2012 Pulitzer Prize.

“This is an outstanding journalistic investigation that clearly embodies the precepts of the Gannett Award, “ according to Mike Cavender, RTDNA Executive Director. “Besides excellent reporting and writing, this series creatively and effectively used digital technologies to help the readers and viewers really understand the significance of the problem and its effects on thousands of residents.”

The Seattle Times’ investigative series was selected among dozens of entries for this year’s award.

“Methadone and the Politics of Pain,” exposed how more than 2,000 people in Washington have fatally overdosed on methadone, a cheap and unpredictable painkiller that the state steers people toward in order to save money.

As noted in the entry submission, in Washington, the poor have paid the greatest price; recipients of Medicaid account for eight percent of the state’s adult population, but 48 percent of the methadone deaths.

One of the key elements looked for in judging the Gannett Foundation Award for Innovation in Watchdog Journalism was a multi-layered approach to not only the actual story, but the presentation as well. The Seattle Times used several elements of multimedia to complement the findings and assist readers in understanding them. A concise video walked viewers through the data visually. Viewers could then dive into and explore the data through interactive maps compiling the deaths and illustrating income disparities. Interactive graphics showed the steady increase of methadone usage and the disproportional number of deaths in comparison to similar drugs. Photography brought these statistics to a personal level, intimately profiling the families affected by the drug and the deaths it caused. 

To take the story beyond points on a map, the project profiled a Medicaid patient, Angeline Burrell, who was prescribed methadone while being tapered off a more expensive painkiller. In medical notes, a doctor who doubled Burrell’s dosage said she warned Burrell that mixing methadone with her other medications could “cause her to stop breathing.” Two days later, Burrell overdosed and died.

The Seattle Times’ revelations had an immediate impact. The state, at the first chance it had, responded by issuing an emergency public-health advisory to more than 1,000 pharmacists and to about 17,000 licensed health-care professionals, warning of methadone’s risks. In January the state went further, sponsoring training programs in which physicians are instructed to treat methadone as a drug of last resort instead of a first-line agent.

The winners of this year’s award will be honored on Monday, October 8, 2012 at the RTDNA Awards Dinner and Show in New York.

Click here to view the Seattle Times’ winning entry.