In the “Do No Harm” series, Allen and digital reporting wizard Richards, twenty-nine, made a public records request to Nevada officials that yielded a database with 2.9 million inpatient hospital billing records reported to the state from 1999 to 2009. “We decided we could impose transparency on them,” said Allen, by opening up the state data to the general public.
But “it was like wrestling with a python,” he said, as the reporters asked themselves, “How do we make this meaningful to the public?” They decided to focus on roughly 560,000 records from 2008 and 2009, and compared records of patients’ conditions at the time of admission to their conditions at discharge. By tracking hospital billing codes at thirteen hospitals in the Las Vegas area, they found 969 cases in which patients sustained potentially preventable cases of infection or injury, including surgical mishaps, while receiving hospital care, Richards said. Allen also interviewed about 250 doctors, nurses, hospital administrators, and patients for the investigative project.
The resulting five-part series, which appeared over a six-month period in 2010, exploited the Sun’s online talents, as the reporting duo worked with colleagues to provide multimedia ways to tell the story, including patient profiles, videos, photographs, source materials, a readers’ forum, and interactive tools that readers could use to mine the data for themselves. Nevada is one of forty states with similar hospital data, said Richards.
“The outrageousness of our health care system was most evident in patient stories,” said Allen, who once did missionary work in Nairobi. He recalled one case in which a patient got a hospital infection “that nearly killed her. But she’s still on the hook for medical bills to treat MRSA (a bacterial infection resistant to some antibiotics) that she acquired in the hospital. Here’s a little old lady on a fixed income being hounded by bill collectors because she can’t afford to pay for what happened to her in the hospital. That’s just unjust.”
Allen noted that the Sun was “a little oasis of great ideas” for journalism and an “incubator for reporters” that empowered them to do good enterprise work. Ironically, Allen recently left the Sun for a new job in New York City, starting Wednesday, as a national health reporter for the non-profit investigative outlet ProPublica. His colleague Richards left the Sun last summer for The Chronicle of Higher Education in Washington, D.C., after doing the digital analysis for the series.
The prestigious Goldsmith investigative reporting prize, funded by a grant from the Greenfield Foundation, honors journalism that “best promotes more effective and ethical conduct of government, the making of public policy or the practice of politics.” The Goldsmith winner, selected from among six previously announced finalists, was kept secret until Monday evening’s announcement. The Goldsmith finalists are often strong contenders for the Pulitzer Prizes, which will be announced at Columbia University on April 18.
Other Goldsmith finalists, who received $10,000 prizes, included Los Angeles Times reporters for a series exposing widespread city hall corruption in tiny Bell, California; National Public Radio for a series on the power of the bail bond industry across America; ProPublica, NPR’s Planet Money, and Chicago Public Radio for a collaborative project on “The Wall Street Money Machine;” the San Jose Mercury News for the first comprehensive analysis of the influence of outside industries and lobbyists on California state lawmaking; and The Washington Post for a two-year investigation into the massive expansion of government intelligence work after 9/11 in its “Top Secret America” series.
Frank Rich, the New York Times columnist who has just announced his departure to New York Magazine, received the Goldsmith Career Award for Excellence in Journalism. In a talk at Harvard Monday night, Rich was upbeat about the future of journalism, despite the current climate of uncertainty. “The news business will eventually flourish,” he said, noting that the history of modern communication, in which radio survived television, shows that “most apocalyptic predictions of doom don’t come true.” Rich said the future of journalism, regardless of platform, rests upon “on-the-ground reporting .How else can we know what is really happening?”
Editor’s Note: Russell, a former Shorenstein Center fellow, judged the 2007 Goldsmith Prize for Investigative Reporting.