How I Got the Story: Insane. Invisible. In Danger.
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Pulitzer-winning journalist Leonora LaPeter Anton takes us behind the scenes of her reportage of negligent mental institutions in Florida.
There are two reasons why the Tampa Bay Times/Herald Tribune’s “Insane. Invisible. In Danger.” is a prime study in investigative journalism.
The first is its exhaustive reportage of the facts. The Pulitzer Prize-winning, five-part series, which revealed escalating violence and neglect in Florida mental hospitals, brims with damning statistics that demonstrate the problem at hand. Take, for instance, this passage explaining the under-reporting of violent episodes at Florida institutions:
While DCF [Department of Children and Families] says there were about 450 injuries or attacks over the past six years, the Times/Herald-Tribune found nearly 1,000. At North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center outside Gainesville, administrators determined there were three incidents serious enough to be reported to DCF in the 2011–12 fiscal year. The Times/Herald-Tribune found 16 injuries and attacks during the same period…The newspapers found similar reporting discrepancies across the state. At Florida State Hospital’s forensic and civil units, administrators reported 16 violent incidents from July 2012 to June 2013. The newspapers found three times as many.During the 2013–14 fiscal year at Northeast Florida State Hospital, administrators reported seven incidents. The Times/Herald-Tribune found more than 40.
The article would have stood strong upon this reporting alone. But — and this brings us to the second reason this is a must-study for any budding journalist — the article also brings the problem to life with anecdotal stories of the neglect endured by patients. These passages are excruciating in detail, and are as illuminating as they are infuriating. Perhaps the best example comes in this passage:
Anthony Barsotti looks on the verge of death. His skin is ashen, his face gaunt. His mouth gapes as he stares at the ceiling, sporadically sucking in breaths.
Three hours earlier, Anthony was a physically healthy 23-year-old living in the state’s care at a Gainesville mental hospital.
Then he took a swing at another mental patient and a hospital orderly launched him head-first into a concrete wall. Workers at North Florida Evaluation and Treatment Center have a good chance to save his life this night in July 2010.
Instead, as hospital security cameras roll, they make one mistake after another. When Anthony stumbles up with a cracked skull, they put a Band-Aid on his finger. When he clutches his head and howls in pain, they give him Tylenol. When he stops talking and his body goes limp, no one checks him for a concussion.
It’s clear Anthony is in serious trouble. But for hours, no one calls 911.
Journalist Leonora LaPeter Anton, who spent more than a year working on this piece with two other reporters, explained how the team was able to pull together both statistics and dramatic details involving the abuse.
They culled reporters with different backgrounds.
“Our investigative editor at the time, Chris Davis, had come from the Herald Tribune. While there, he had requested and gotten this giant database that had every court case from our state, and it also had all the ones involving people who were mentally ill. So he pulled together the Herald team and me.
One thing that I found really valuable is that we each came to this with a different background. So I’m sort of a narrative writer person. And Michael Braga reported more on business, real estate, and government — so he was able to track down all the financials. And Anthony Cormier was just a hard core investigative reporter. He covered a lot of topics in courts, so he knew a lot about records and that realm. So having people who had different skill sets really helped a lot.”
Before reporting, the team mastered the subject.
“We learned about the whole mental health system, because it’s so complex and you can’t just go diving in not understanding it. So we started out doing whitepapers. We researched really basic things, like how it’s divided between criminal and civil, how much it costs, who’s in these mental hospitals. Each of us spent a lot of time nailing down what we needed to know and then writing it in the whitepapers for everybody else. I thought that was really crucial.
And it’s common, I guess, in the investigative world. You just pick a topic and everybody needs to learn about it.”
When roadblocks arose, they went around them.
“We basically tried to get everything we could on this system, public record-wise. And a lot of things were not available. So whatever we could get — state reports, federal reports, police reports — we pulled it all. And I call this layering. When you have whole segments of information that are not available, you have to take from different places and then put it together and figure out what it’s telling you.”
To compare and analyze their data, they used a simple database.
“We put all of our data from different places together into a database. Ultimately, our database covered 2009 to 2015. We had a thousand incidents of violence, and officials had 450 in that time period. So we were able to show that the legislature was unaware of half the violence that was taking place. And we also showed over the same time period, and this is key, they cut $100 million in funding.
As reporters, we’re more and more inclined to use data in our stories these days, because data seems to matter — it gives context and it can show what’s happening over time. So I would say using a database definitely helped.”
They found characters to drive the story.
“I would go through all these reports, and I would just start looking for people — relatives and employees — and try to find really good stories in the police reports. Then I’d try to locate those people.”
Once they found people to interview, they were delicate in their approach.
“I approach everyone very low key. No pressure, just relaxed, and a little chit chat to smooth it out. I try to find common ground. And I just try to have conversations with people and get to know them a little bit. But, at the same time, I’m very direct. I don’t try to be sneaky. I say, ‘Hey, I’d like to talk to you about this.’
If they say no, and I’m not on deadline, I’ll say, ‘You know, I get it. No problem. But just think about it. Here’s my phone number, etc.’ Then maybe a little bit later I’ll call them again. And then maybe one day I’ll knock on their door.”
They were persistent in talking with sources.
“Anthony Barsotti’s story was a very difficult one to get. When I called his parents, the mother talked to me on the phone at first, then she blew me off. But I kept calling, and finally they agreed to have us come. Now, each time I interviewed this couple, it felt like I was ripping out their hearts. It would take them a couple days to recover after an interview, and that was really hard. But they really wanted to have something written about Anthony’s life and what he’d gone through in his mental hospital because they felt it was relevant.
And then, when I called the employee who threw Anthony into the wall, he said he’d talk. As we were driving up he canceled. And then he agreed again, and canceled again. So I just started stopping by his house every now and then, saying hi, and he said, ‘Well, I’ll think about it.’ One day we just showed up and he talked.”
This persistence led to more fact finding.
“We wanted to look into Anthony Barsotti’s medical charts. But his parents told me that their lawyers had it. I kept calling the lawyers to get them. The family was calling. And one day, about eight months after I first asked for these records, I just called up and I left a message. I said, ‘Please, please. This is so important. This is important for mentally ill people around the state, please release these records so we have a chance to show what happened in the state.’
All of a sudden, boom, door opens. They make an appointment, and we get the records. And in it is a treasure trove. It’s every single day during Anthony’s last 10 days in the hospital — what happened, what drugs he was on, whether he got into a fight with somebody, what he ate, when they checked on him, what he was saying. In addition, we found all the surveillance video that the lawyers had asked for.”
With government officials, they were pointed, but non-confrontational.
“When we spoke to DCF officials in Tallahassee, they only agreed to talk to us in person for one hour. And we had a lot of questions to ask. So we had to interject a lot to get our questions answered. It wasn’t quite confrontational but it was pointed and strong. They questioned our results, for sure. But they seemed to accept them when we showed them the results.”
They were extra diligent with facts.
“My fact checking is very exhaustive. It’s almost an anxiety type of reaction, where I’m just double-checking every fact. You don’t want your facts to be wrong. That’s the worst thing. So just double-check with the sources.”
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