Ellen Gabler’s journey began with a sick baby born in central Wisconsin by the name of Colton Hidde. His newborn screen test had revealed a genetic disorder, one that was easily treatable with nothing more than sugar water. Unfortunately, treatment for the disorder was delayed and as a result, Colton Hidde fell extremely ill.
In 2013, Gabler, an intrepid investigative reporter and assistant editor for the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel’s investigative section, received the Livingston Award for Young Journalists for uncovering deadly time discrepancies found in many of the nation’s hospital’s newborn screening processes.
This prestigious award means $10,000 worth of recognition for outstanding journalistic work, recognition given on a local, national, and international level among reporters practicing within different genres of journalism – print, online, and broadcast.
Though their expertise may vary, recipients of the Livingston Award – one that stands alone as the largest, all-inclusive media award in journalism – maintain one commonality: they are each under the age of 35.
Gabler’s unveiling of the disparities in treatment, which galvanized medical institutions across the United States into drastically improving their newborn screening programs, started with Gabler’s simple inquiry, as Dean Miller, Director of the Center for News Literacy, recounted, “Why are kids still dying of childhood conditions that are treatable?”
The Stony Brook University Center for News Literacy invited Gabler to explain her answers at the 52nd “My Life As…” presentation, held for the first time in the Wang Center Theatre on February 23, 2015.
Throughout her investigations, it was necessary for Gabler to incorporate intensive data analysis into her reporting. This included analyzing 3 million newborn screening tests taken from 31 states, which revealed newborn blood samples being sent late to state laboratories for evaluation. As a result, this meant delayed diagnosis of the disorders – causing many of the infant deaths.
“One thing we do as journalists, we figure out how something is supposed to work, and then how it’s actually working,” Gabler explained.
Prompted by Gabler’s findings, the state of Arizona went from being one of the poorest performing states in the country, to increasing their performance by more than 30 percent – consequently positioning them as one of best.
In addition to discussing her reporting process, Gabler devoted much of her presentation to providing young journalists in the audience with advice on how to develop their own. She emphasized the importance of persevering while still remaining positive and the necessity of self-reflection on both themselves and their writing – practices to which she attributes much of her success.
“[The] best thing I learned while doing this story was, be persistent,” Gabler said.
For Denise De Sousa, a junior majoring in journalism, the presentation was among the most affecting she has seen as a student. “I’m actually really big into pro-life, so to hear a story that has saved newborn babies is really powerful, because it’s such a thing that I want to dedicate my life to.”
Lisa Benz Scott, associate professor and director of the Program in Public Health at Stony Brook, had recommended Gabler to the Center for News Literacy as a MLA speaker. “I was excited about how she was integrating population health data with investigative reporting in a way that would impact policy and motivate change – rapid change – because everybody cares about babies, and nobody wants to be the hospital or the state with the worst performance in that area.”
Photos and reporting by Megan Miller