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NYT investigative ace Ellen Gabler has massive doubts about her big projects, just like you

NYT investigative ace Ellen Gabler has massive doubts about her big projects, just like you

Picture of Ryan White
(Photo by Jeff Skeirik/Center for Health Journalism)
Ellen Gabler delivered the keynote address at the 2019 Data Fellowship in Los Angeles this week.
(Photo by Jeff Skeirik/Center for Health Journalism)

For reporters working far from the prestigious newsrooms of the nation’s top dailies, it’s easy to imagine an investigative reporter from The New York Times as an implacable member of the order, calmly and confidently snapping the story’s jigsaw of facts into place one day at a time.

And you’d be right, at least about the implacable part, as The Time’s Ellen Gabler made clear in her candid keynote address to a room full of ambitious journalists embarking on the 2019 Data Fellowship Wednesday. But unflappable confidence and faith in the story? Were it so easy.

“We don’t always explain the mess we had to wade through to get there, or the panic or self-doubt that we felt along the way,” Gabler said before reciting the litany of challenges she had to overcome in her damning exposé of the pediatric surgery program at North Carolina Children’s Hospital at the University of North Carolina medical center.

It’s a heartening message for reporters standing on the cusp of a major reporting project and seeing only the abyss ahead. “It’s easy to think everybody else knows what they’re doing and I’m the only one who doesn’t," said Gabler, who seems allergic to professional pretense. “It turns out nobody knows what they’re doing. You just have to keep going, and that’s how a lot of these stories end up getting done.”

Gabler has an enviable track record of getting big stories done. When she was at the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel earlier in her career, she tracked down data from 31 states over five months for the “Deadly Delays” series, which revealed potentially fatal problems caused by delays in screening newborns' blood for rare genetic disorders. The series received the prestigious Selden Ring Award for Investigative Reporting, among others, and helped save lives.

When she was first tipped off that there was a problem at UNC, she recognized echoes from similar problems in places such as Philadelphia and Tampa. “This just keeps happening everywhere,” she said. She thought, “That is weird.”

But there was also a deeper human drama playing out behind the scenes, as secret audio tapes that the Times ultimately published made clear: Doctors at the medical center were agonizing over the moral implications of this program, which repeatedly produced poor outcomes among kids undergoing heart surgery.

If that sounds like a blockbuster story, there were only three small problems, as Gabler explained: “I couldn’t get the data, no one would talk to me and I didn’t know who any of these patients were.”

Her editors were skeptical that she had enough to pursue the story, but she fired off the first volley in a long, stubborn battle with UNC to get the mortality data for its pediatric heart surgery program. Three-quarters of hospitals with such programs publicly share that data through the Society of Thoracic Surgeons’ website, but not UNC. Private hospitals aren’t required to divulge such data, but since it was a state-owned hospital, she submitted public records requests for the data and emails. Her requests were refused. At one point, UNC wanted to charge the Times’ $45,000 for inpatient discharge data, but then quickly shifted its position again and said the paper couldn’t have the data, period. The Times eventually sued to obtain it, entered mediation and 10 months later, Gabler received four years’ worth of data. But it was not risk-adjusted (the hospital had earlier insisted she could only use risk-adjusted data), and it was missing a crucial year. (The hospital eventually did make public the full risk-adjusted data — two weeks after the Times’ story ran, Gabler said.)

Meanwhile, almost no one who worked for the hospital would talk with her. “People were scared. Their jobs were at stake,” she said. Building trust was a glacial process. No one hates a reporter showing up at their homes quite as much as doctors, she discovered. Yet she kept pursuing the story, leaving voicemails and knocking at doors, and at some point those she was trying to reach realized she wasn’t giving up, and she wasn’t going away.

As if that wasn’t enough to contend with, the patients were really hard to find, she said, especially the families of kids who had experienced complications during surgery, but survived. She recalled her “most brilliant idea” was to persuade the Ronald McDonald House nearby where kids recuperated from surgery to pass along a message to families. “It didn’t work.”

Even by the hard-bitten standards of investigative journalism, this was a tough story to report. But she couldn’t stop hearing those voices from the audio. Those voices include a UNC cardiologist speaking to her colleagues: “As a mother of three children, oh my God. ... It’s inexcusable. As a physician, I mean, we all took the oath. … I can’t get past this. This is beyond horrifying.”

“This audio is basically why I couldn’t drop this story,” Gabler said. “I couldn’t shake it from my memory.”

And it was those clips of doctors agonizing over the life-and-death crisis unfolding in their midst that made it a genuinely interesting human story, one to which any parent could relate.

One of her touchstones in thinking about what makes a great nonfiction story is Gene Weingarten of The Washington Post, who offers the following in his book “The Fiddler on the Subway:” “A feature story will never be better than pedestrian unless it can use the subject at hand to address a more universal truth.”

“The power of finding that universal truth is that you can get anyone to relate to a story, even when they typically wouldn’t be interested in that subject matter,” Gabler said.

Her reporting on UNC was driven by a sense that she had turned up themes — a powerful institution, distraught families, agonized doctors — that transcended the particulars of one troubled surgery program.

“That was a really, really powerful thing for me,” she said. “And it’s why I wanted to tell the story.”

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