In The Wrong Hands, by Ryan Gabrielson, California Watch/Center for Investigative Reporting. $.99, Kindle Single.
by Deborah Blum
For well over a year, the investigative reporters at California Watch (part of the non-profit center for Investigative Reporting) have been pursuing a story involving abuse of mentally ill patients in state care - and of institutional indifference to that abuse.
That investigation, led by Ryan Gabrielson, focused on five state operated centers that house "some of society's most vulnerable citizens - men and women with severe autism, cerebral palsy and other intellectual disabilities living in taxpayer funded institutions." To sum up the results, it found that center residents had been beaten, tortured and raped by staff members. And that a police force, set up to protect resident safety, had apparently helpfully looked the other way.
The stories, first detailed in a series called Broken Shield, are best described as horrifying, a litany that includes the taser burning of a dozen patients, the rape of others, and the death of a quadriplegic patient with cerebral palsy, who died of internal bleeding after three cotton-tipped swabs tore through his esophagus. None of these incidents, as the investigation makes clear, were thoroughly evaluated by the well-paid police force assigned to those centers. In many cases, including the worst ones, no charges were filed.
There's another interesting issue here--the platforms which California Watch used to tell this story--but I'd rather start by considering its importance, its indictment of the way we care for helpless and troubled people, in particular the system in California. And to acknowledge that I'm not alone in this reaction. Everyone from newspaper readers to state officials was appalled. The stories prompted major reorganizations of centers, investigations by outside experts, and new legislation, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, mandating far stricter law enforcement oversight. This month, the state agreed not to seek Medicare reimbursement for care at the most troubled centers. This is a story that matters, one of the reasons I wanted to bring it up here.
These powerful changes are foremost a result of really powerful reporting. But California Watch also amplified that effect by making sure that its findings were heard across multiple platforms. The stories were placed on its website. They were distributed to newspapers across the state, running in all eight of the state's largest newspapers. They were showcased on radio programs, partly through the center's partnership with KQED. Videos were provided to television stations. California Watch even produced a graphic-novel style video, which illustrated the trauma suffered by patients and their families.
And in December, the Center for Investigative Reporting published the series as a 99-cent Kindle single titled In the Wrong Hands: How a Police Force Failed California's Most Vulnerable Citizens. In one sense, the single is perhaps the least impressive part of this approach. It's a workmanlike summary of the original series rather than a uniquely good e-publication in its own right. The story-telling remains in a basic newspaper format; there's a puzzling lack of illustration, audio, video or really anything would bring additional life to the telling.
This is less of a problem in a gorgeous narrative or exceptionally fun-to-read story. But this is neither of those things. In the Wrong Hands reads like what it is --a repackaged newspaper series rather than a well-articulated book. It's dense enough and dark enough to occasionally be a challenge to read--exactly the kind of story that benefits from other kinds of media--perhaps even some of California Watch's own novelistic video. I suspect that with a little more time and care, this could have been a more substantial and more meaningful e-single, one that would have reached an even wider audience (when I checked on January 21, its Kindle single standing was 364,414).
I respect--and even admire--the California Watch model for distributing news and for solvency in a digital age (briefly outlined here at the Nieman Journalism Lab). But as someone who also has hopes for the e-publishing age that we are growing into, I'd like to argue for setting a high professional standard for e-books, both short and long, one that really moves them beyond old-time print. If we're building a new model of story telling then there's nothing wrong wanting it to be a really good one.
And, after all, a great investigation--which In the Wrong Hands was--deserves a great platform.
Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner's Handbook, published her first e-single, Angel Killer, last year. She writes for numerous publications, blogs about chemistry at Wired, and teaches journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.