By Amantha Dickman
University of Nebraska-Lincoln
At the beginning of each new workday, Michael Berens, 57, sets the goal of aiming to improve someone’s life.
As an investigative reporter for the Chicago Tribune, Berens has spent 33 years writing about criminal matters from attempts to make peace with members of the Taliban through the University of Nebraska-Omaha, to the Illinois State Police’s use of flawed population estimates to generate inaccurate crime rate reports for dozens of cities.
Despite the varying subject possibilities, Berens keeps finding himself drawn back to investigating health care justice and potential reforms.
“In my early career, I focused on criminal justice. All my projects revolved around criminal justice. At the Tribune they said they liked my project work, but they told me to try something outside of criminal justice, so I became very interested in healthcare justice,” said Berens, in a phone interview.
“You have victims and bad guys, big pharmaceutical companies. There’s so much to report on. Nothing is off-limits, but I keep coming back. It’s a topic that is so rich and relevant to our lives. It impacts all of us.”
Recently, Berens has focused on writing a new series called “Suffering in Secret” about the state health care system. In 2016, after a thorough investigation, Berens published multiple pieces detailing the flaws within the management of group homes for the disabled in the state of Illinois. Neglect and abuse noticeably became widespread because of a lack of resources and funding in Illinois, which struggles to maintain a stable financial ground, he said.
Throughout the investigation, Berens uncovered 1,311 cases of documented harm to clients. At least 42 deaths were reported as resulting of abuse or neglect. In many of these cases, injuries and deaths were results of untrained staff members who failed to adequately supervise their clients. Furthermore, some of these group homes were assigned to investigate themselves, which led to mistreatment being ignored.
In his fifth installment of the series, Berens calls for reforms to state health care policy, saying, “This is the moral test of government.”
Many seem to agree that reforms are required to make the state health care system safer.
“There already has been [change]. They’ve opened cases from our reporting and closed eight homes and are moving 45 people to other homes. New reforms and house hearings are next week. This has generated commentary from officials who agree with us,” said Berens in an interview in December 2016.
It is this call for reforms and dedication that has won Berens many awards. Though he claims the awards are simply an acknowledgement of good writing, more goes into a story than just words.
In 1995 and 2007, Berens was a nominee for the Pulitzer Prize for Investigative Reporting. In 2012, he finally won.
Berens also won the Worth Bingham Prize for Investigative Journalism in 2010, which honors any newspaper or journalist for investigative reporting of stories that concern the public at a national level and aims to reform public ills.
The story that nominated him for the Worth Bingham Prize was a series called “Seniors for Sale.” Similar to “Suffering in Secret,” the story focused on how money and politics in the area overshadowed the proper care for elderly adults, leading to cases of abuse, neglect and exploitation in family homes.
Berens’ work shares a common theme: it’s an attempt to fix social ills and create a community where all have a chance to live healthy and happy lives. The desire to make the ideal community a reality has driven Berens to pursue justice for those who seek it.
His interest in seeking justice started early. As a college student, he pursued a degree in journalism at The Ohio State University. While there, he applied at two newspapers for the position of copy boy. The Columbus Dispatch hired him.
“I started at the bottom. I set up the Christmas tree and got the mail,” said Berens.
After a while, he got the break he needed to step foot into the world of journalism.
“After working as a copy boy, there was a chance to become the police beat reporter. They gave me the job and I worked there for the next 13 years. They had a policy saying they needed five years experience and I was lucky. They broke that rule and hired me. For me to start off at a big place like that was a dream come true and rare,” said Berens.
After those thirteen years, he transferred to the Chicago Tribune and then to The Seattle Times. In the end, he returned to the Chicago Tribune.
“Even though I left, the Chicago Tribune wanted me back,” said Berens. “The Tribune offered a chance to do high-quality journalism. Where I was in Seattle, was the best paper in the country for investigative journalism. But it was getting smaller and smaller all the time. Chicago represented the kind of journalism I wanted to do: My goal is change.”
A note about the content: This site showcases the final projects of University of Nebraska-Lincoln editing students. Each semester, students pick a journalist or communications professional to profile. This is their work.
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