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Award-winning journalist helps students dive deep into local elder abuse investigation Date: 10/09/18

Tracy Breton

By Liz Seegert

Tracy Breton, a Pulitzer prize-winning investigative and legal affairs reporter at the Providence Journal for 40 years, and now professor of English and nonfiction writing at Brown University, finally got the opportunity to report out the elder abuse series she’s wanted to do for a decade. She oversaw a year-long investigation by a team of Brown University students into the issue of elder abuse in Rhode Island. The project blossomed into a nine-part-series for the Providence Journal thanks to a new, nonprofit community news initiative, the Community Tribune (more on that below). Note that several AHCJ members are advisers to this enterprise.

Breton, (along with two of her student reporters), discussed their experiences for the Providence Journal’s “From the Newsroom” podcast. In a follow-up interview with me, Breton further detailed aspects of this significant body of reporting. 

Q: How did this project come about? 

A: I got a phone call last April, 2017, from Ben Eisler, an investigative reporter who at the time was a graduate student at Columbia University Business School. He asked me if I would do a pilot series for this nonprofit he was starting that would pair top journalism students with experienced reporters who were also professors. He thought it would be a great way to fill the gap in local investigative reporting. He left it up to me to decide the topic. I also reached out to Alan Rosenberg at the Journal and told him about this project, and he was really interested. He’s known me for years and knows I wouldn’t submit anything sub-par.

Q: How did you decide to look into elder abuse?

A: It’s been a longtime topic of interest for me, ever since I volunteered at a nursing home in high school. I did a Roslyn Carter Mental Health Journalism Fellowship back in 2006-07 and had pages and pages of notes about it. I’d hoped to do something with computer-assisted reporting and elder abuse on my own while at the Journal, but it never came about. I still had about a hundred court files that another student had copied for me … so I thought, let’s do this as the project; the attorney general’s office here has an elder abuse unit and I really wanted to see how these cases turned out.

Q: How did you select the students to participate?

A: I asked four of my most advanced students if they wanted to do this for course credit, like an independent study. I thought it would take a semester, but it actually took an entire year. These students got the credit for one semester, but were so passionate about this project, they continued to work on it the following semester even though they didn’t receive any academic credit.

Q: Can you describe the reporting process?

A: We spent about $2,000 on buying data from the judiciary so we could do the computer-assisted part, and did a lot of traditional reporting. We spent months looking through state records before we ever did any writing. We combed through files in the courthouse to look at the scope of elder abuse in the state, and those cases, and looked for patterns.

Q: how did you go about reporting?

A: Old fashioned journalism – once the student were launched on it, they combed through about 300 more court cases and then brought in some outside help to crunch data. That’s the way I teach them. They have to do it right, dig deep, and produce something no one can poke holes in, and write it well. We started prep work in 2017 and the students jumped right in the first week of September that year.

They were passionate about doing this and found stuff they could break out. They knew the story would be data driven and were looking at both the micro and macro views of the problem. 

Q: Did the police and prosecutors take the students seriously?

A: I told the students from the beginning to tell everyone that this was a project that would be published, it wasn’t just a class project. I told them they were real reporters and should demand and push for information they were entitled to. Spending all that time with the court records gave them the data to sit there and ask why things happened the way they did. It was a good lesson in using court files and also how to turn that information into real stories. Some of these people, many of them, are either deceased, or very elderly and couldn’t be interviewed.

Q: What did they learn as they reported out this series?

A: They learned a ton! We all met once a week to talk about what everyone was learning and to map out interviews and divvy up the reporting. We discussed what they’d found, what they did, what are the patterns they’re seeing emerge. They’re all going about saying the same things; that they found abuse happening within families, it wasn’t being reported, that there were mental health or substance abuse issues. They were seeing this in court filings. Maybe the narrative was different, or different weapons were used, but there were definite patterns backing up the scholarly research we’d already done. You don’t really learn how this affects your community until you see the faces of elder abuse in your community. And that’s what these students were finding.

Q: How did you handle the data crunching?

A: I knew I didn’t have the skill set to start doing coding with the raw materials we bought, and neither did the students on my team. But I did have a former student who was a computer science major and I think his goal in life was to do data-driven journalism. And also Ben Eisler, who founded our nonprofit, had a former roommate when he was an undergrad at Harvard who now works for the Gates Foundation as a senior data scientist. Both agreed to work on the data that we got from the courts and do the crunching. That gave us two sets of eyes on this because I didn’t want there to be mistakes in trying to filter it. We spent months and months making sure the data was complete and correct.

Q: Will you be doing more collaborations like this?

A:  I’d love to do more of these. It is a labor of love but it does take money. We had to spend a couple of thousand just to get data from the judiciary.  I hope this series spurs donations to Ben’s nonprofit so we can do more of this at Brown and on other campuses. It’s a great experience for the students, and for the journalists and journalism professors to work with these young reporters. Their reporting can have a real impact on the community and hopefully lead to change. That’s what we’re hoping this series does, and other series that other students and professors work on.

Update: Jack Brook, one of the student reporters, and Breton were asked to give a presentation on Oct. 16 to a state senate legislative committee that is studying elder abuse and exploitation.

Read Providence Journal editor Alan Rosenberg’s introduction to the series here.