October 30, 2009

Casey Award ceremony in Washington, D.C.

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carol_smithwebI just returned from the Casey Medals for Meritorious Journalism and America’s Promise Journalism Awards ceremony in Washington, D.C. I was grateful and honored to have received a medal this year for the piece, “Gravely Disabled: Broken mental health care system wastes money, chances, lives.”

For that piece, which was edited by Scott Sunde, I shadowed Seattle’s Liz Browning as she struggled to find help for her adult son with schizophrenia. Of all the stories I did during my traditional newspaper career, this one generated among the most responses from readers. I heard from hundreds of families, from cops, and social workers, and from patients.

Mental illness is still a taboo, and few families will discuss it, especially in a newspaper, and even more especially in the aftermath of a series of violent crimes associated with mental illness. But Liz Browning allowed me to shadow her through her son’s descent into the grip of schizophrenia. Her courage put a face on how our jails and mental health laws and hospitals were failing to keep patients safe from themselves, and – in extreme cases – the public safe as well.

That one story was part of a deeper, year-long look at the state’s mental health and criminal justice system. The series was touched off by the tragic murder of Shannon Harps, a young Sierra Club worker who was stabbed to death outside her apartment on Capitol Hill on New Year’s Eve, 2007, by a man with a history of violence and untreated mental illness. The investigation, conducted during the last year of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer’s print publication, was initiated by Rita Hibbard, now executive director of InvestigateWest. Daniel Lathrop, also one of the five journalist founders of InvestigateWest, contributed database reporting on that series as well.

Our efforts resulted in a high-level examination of how the state wastes money in its approach to dealing with mental illness.

It’s this kind of deeper reporting that InvestigateWest aims to continue doing as traditional newsrooms cut back. And it was this kind of reporting that was honored at the Casey Medals this year. There is no stronger argument for doing this kind of work than the work itself. At the ceremony, we heard from reporters who uncovered a heroin epidemic among high school kids on Long Island, who identified toxic air outside of schools around the country, who chronicled the demise of the American Dream in Akron, Ohio, who uncovered abuses at poultry processing plants in North Carolina, and more. You can link to the award-winning work here, as well as see video highlights of the ceremony.

–Carol Smith

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