Seattle Times project investigating deadly effects of methadone wins 2012 Selden Ring Award

Michael J. Berens and Ken Armstrong of The Seattle Times have been awarded the 2012 Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, for their three-part series “Methadone and the Politics of Pain.”

The $35,000 annual award, which has been presented for the past 23 years by the School of Journalism at USC Annenberg, honors the year’s outstanding work in investigative journalism that led to direct results.

Selden Ring Award judges lauded Berens and Armstrong for: “Thorough and groundbreaking reporting on how more than 2,000 people in Washington state have fatally overdosed on the painkiller methadone. ‘Methadone and the Politics of Pain’ showed how the state steered Medicaid patients toward methadone despite repeated warnings about its risks. The drug saved the state money because it is a cheap painkiller, but poor patients paid for the savings with their lives.”

Before the series, methadone was designated by the state of Washington as a preferred drug to treat chronic pain. “Many low-income patients were given no other choice. Many patients were not told that the drug harbors unique risks and that they could stop breathing and die. Some doctors dubbed it the ‘silent death,’” Berens said in an email after the announcement of the award Monday.

The impact of the series was immediate and dramatic. Within days, the state issued an emergency public-health advisory warning of the unique risk of methadone as a pain drug. Within weeks, the state also declared methadone no longer the preferred drug and for the first time warned patients that the powerful prescription drug should only be used as a last resort.

Other finalists for the 2012 Selden Ring Award were:

Billions to Spend,” by Michael Finnegan, Gale Holland, Paul Pringle, Doug Smith and Ben Welsh of the Los Angeles Times, a six-part series on how cronyism, careless planning and shoddy workmanship led to the loss of tens of millions of a $5.7 billion-program to rebuild the nine campuses of the Los Angeles Community College District.

Unfit for Duty,” by Anthony Cormier and Matthew Doig of the Sarasota Herald-Tribune, an investigation that found thousands of Florida police officers remaining on the job despite arrests or evidence of crimes that could have landed them in prison.

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