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Home > Publications > Quill > SDX Awards: Newspaper public service, under 100,000


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Friday, June 30, 2006
SDX Awards: Newspaper public service, under 100,000

Winner: The Charleston Gazette Staff

By Chris Speckman

Through his “Brother’s Keeper” series, Charleston Gazette reporter Scott Finn helped remedy West Virginia’s handling of the mentally ill.

“Several mental health advocates said the Gazette series convinced lawmakers to take action,” said James Haught, the newspaper’s editor. “(The mental hygiene system reform) bill had stalled in a legislative committee for two years. Its supporters thought it was dead.”

Enter Finn.

He compiled the necessary numbers, encompassing figures ranging from the rising costs of state hospitals for treating mentally ill patients to the soaring number of West Virginia mental hygiene petitions, and first-hand accounts of mistreated patients to bring attention to the sickening trend.

“By weaving people’s stories with his statistics, Finn made our readers care,” Haught said.

Along the way, Finn faced a litany of challenges acquiring the information that set his series apart.

“Finn faced massive opposition from the bureaucrats who wanted to keep their mistakes hidden,” said Haught. “He battled the state’s mental health agency for six months to obtain records, and even then found that some documents had been hidden from him.

“He also had to convince people with mental illness and their families to talk to him about their challenges and agree to be interviewed and photographed — a Herculean task in a small community with strong stigmas surrounding mental illness.”

Because the Gazette reporter never backed down, no small deed of Finn’s was left unrewarded.

“This entry shows citizens the results of bad public policy through well-researched, thoughtful reporting and investigation,” said the judges. “Personal stories of individuals directly affected by the mental health system’s failure demonstrate the need for action. The panel of experts convened by the newspaper to develop solutions gives the public the ammunition needed to demand change.”

With firepower in tow, proponents for reform already have made noise. Earlier in 2006, West Virginia Gov. Joe Manchin proposed adding $20 million dollars to state spending on mental hygiene.

“This story has been waiting for a reporter like Finn to tell it,” Haught said. “We are proud to submit ‘Brother’s Keeper’ as an example of watchdog journalism at its best.”

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