What turns one appalling case into an investigation that can change state law and reform an industry? Determined, methodical digging and accurate analysis of public records–that’s how the Seattle Times told the full story of Seniors for Sale, a year-long series on elderly abuse in “adult homes.” In the latest issue of the IRE Journal, reporter Michael Berens describes the lessons learned.
1. Manuals are a gold mine. “Government agencies love manuals,” Berens says. “So should you.” He filed a public record request for database manuals, operating manuals and handbooks at the Washington Department of Social and Health Services, which oversees the homes. The manuals pointed Berens to records that were scattered in more than a dozen different places.
2. First drafts can be revealing. By asking for “working papers” from state investigations, Berens was able to see how final reports had been scrubbed of damning details and recommendations.
3. Track emails. Don’t just request them, figure out whether you got all of what you asked for. The Times created a spreadsheet with the date and sender of each email the agency provided. Turns out they got emails from only a handful of people, because the agency had left it up to the employees to decide what to turn over.
4. Turn narratives into spreadsheets. To spot trends and develop comprehensive data, Berens teased discrete bits of information from written reports and plugged them into a spreadsheet. Name of home, name of owner, address, date of violation, type of violation, results and much more. “Separate everything,” he advises. The more fields you create, the easier it is to analyze the data.
5. Layer and compare. “Some of the richest findings–the stuff of juicy stories–are built by linking public records from diverse sources,” Berens says. He compared the addresses of licensed homes with death certificates and his own database of violations. What did he find? Dozens of suspicious deaths that were never investigated.
The individual stories the Times uncovered were horrific. Case in point:
After the Times exposed numerous cases of elderly abuse in adult-family homes, the governor of Washington ordered a review that led to dozens of proposed new laws to reform the system. That likely would not have happened had the paper focused only on individual horror stories. I’d argue that it was the weight of the evidence, painstakingly compiled, that made the series so powerful. Call that a final lesson learned.