Nieman announces Worth Bingham Prize winner

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Reporter Michael J. Berens of The Seattle Times is winner of the 2010 Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism for his comprehensive six-part series “Seniors for Sale: Exploiting the aged and frail in Washington’s adult family homes.”

During his lengthy investigation, Berens found that thousands of vulnerable elderly adults had been abused, neglected, or exploited for profit in many of Washington’s more than 2,800 adult family homes. He also discovered an underlying cause for his findings: Caseworkers trying to meet quotas were transferring nursing home residents into the homes to reduce the state’s Medicaid costs and save money.

The $20,000 Bingham Prize will be presented at the Nieman Foundation for Journalism at Harvard in Cambridge, Mass., on April 14, 2011.

In selecting “Seniors for Sale” as the Bingham Prize winner, judges praised the series for its outstanding enterprise reporting and for the crucial public service it provided. They recognized the many obstacles Berens had to overcome to tell the story properly – from dealing with victims who were deceased, suffering from dementia, or otherwise not accessible – to obtaining records from officials unwilling to comply with information requests.

Bingham Prize judge Anna Gorman said, “Berens combined data analysis with old-fashioned reporting to investigate an industry that has grown rapidly without sufficient oversight. Berens wrote about egregious mistreatment of seniors, including people being ‘strapped to chairs’ and ‘drugged into submission.’ But he also uncovered something perhaps even more shocking – the fact that homeowners were trying to sell seniors as part of real estate deals … While reporters frequently only focus on the problems, Berens also took readers inside an adult family home that works. Other news outlets across the nation should follow the paper’s lead and investigate the adult-home industry in their own states.”

The Worth Bingham Prize honors investigative reporting of stories of national significance where the public interest is being ill-served. Prize judges are guided by such factors as obstacles overcome in getting information, accuracy, clarity of analysis and writing style, magnitude of the situation, and impact on the public, including any reforms that may have resulted.