2017 The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom finalist

Unlawful Coercion in Psychiatric Wards

Synnove Asebo, Mona Norman, Jari Bakken and Sondre Nilsen


The Al Neuharth Innovation in Investigative Journalism Award, Large Newsroom


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About the Project

It started with a story about a young woman who had spent the majority of the past two years tied down in a bed at a psychiatric hospital in Oslo.

Through hundreds of emails the woman told the journalists about her life: She had not been by herself for the past two years – and while she wrote us, her hands were tied to the desk on each side of her computer.

But how unique was her story?

By comparing local and national numbers and analyzing them, VG went on to reveal that the hospitals failed to report about 1 out of 4 incidents of physical restraints to the health government.

Then VG learned that hospitals are required to keep handwritten notes – Coercion logs – for each incident of coercion at each ward. This information does not exist digitally. The journalists used FOIA-laws to access patient records – and for the first time these records were made publicly available.

By digitizing thousands of handwritten logbooks, building their own tool to make digital logs – and analyzing the material (using R Studio), VG could show new and groundbreaking statistics on unlawful use of physical coercion against psychiatric patients.

Analyzing the times of year, weeks and days on which patients were tied down, VG could show that the use of coercion doubled when summer temps attended the patients. We could also analyze the material with other parametres such as hospital economy and lack of medical staff.

The final material contains the full coercion logs from 2015 for 14 psychiatric hospitals, documenting 2538 incidents of coercion used against 996 patients. 640 incidents were considered unlawful or highly problematic by law professors. In the end VG could also reveal that the controllers had failed to protect the vulnerable patients.

The material was presented in interactive digital graphics, longreads and a video documentary – to visualize the use of coercion in a field were the patient’s stories had to be anonymous.

The exposé of the Norwegian health care system resulted in a massive public debate, several investigations – and clinic managers resigned from their positions. The health minister of Norway has named VG’s story “The most serious health issue during his parliamentary time”.