A Magazine by the Society of Professional Journalists

SDX Awards: Newspaper public service, Los Angeles Times

By Quill

Los Angles founded the Martin Luther King Jr./Drew Medical Center as a peace offering after the 1965 Watts riots, where racial tensions killed 30 and injured more than 1,000. Since its opening, however, the public hospital has been responsible for countless unnecessary deaths.

The hospital near Watts was supposed to be a source of pride. King/Drew is a source of shame – not just for people in the neighborhood, but for everyone in this city. No one with a choice would go there for medical care. As both symbol and reality, it is separate and unequal – the very injustice it was supposed to cure.

In 2004, four reporters and a photographer from the Los Angles Times set out to determine just how bad the hospital was and why it had never been fixed. Their work resulted in “The Troubles at King/Drew.”

The series describes how the hospital has failed to deliver quality health care, harming and even killing patients over the years. It also discusses the way in which complex racial sensitivities have inhibited political leaders from making needed changes.

“The project was, so often, heart-wrenching,” said Tracy Weber, an investigative projects reporter for the Times, “the stakes so high, the issues so tangled up in race and politics.”

The team obtained public records of the hospital’s salaries, malpractice payouts and worker’s compensation. The team also worked with wronged patients and their families to open medical records, then find appropriate experts to review the materials.

“Hospitals are difficult places to cover,” said staff writer Charles Ornstein. “Patient privacy laws protect details about medical care, making it all the more important for reporters to seek out patients themselves. … That said, the gratifying part about covering hospitals, in general, is that reporters can truly effect change.”

The Times received more than 350 e-mails from readers. Positive comments outnumbered negatives 10-to-1.

“Some critics of our work have said that we are out to close Drew/King,” said Ornstein. “Nothing could be further from the truth. I genuinely hope that one day soon, the residents of south Los Angeles will receive the same caliber of medical care that patients receive at other public and private hospitals in out region. I look forward to the day when I can write that King/Drew’s problems have been solved.”