At MIT, the veteran Des Moines Register reporter looks to raise the bar on mental health reporting.
In 2000, Tony Leys was at a crossroads. Since he’d broken in at the copy desk of The Des Moines Register 12 years earlier, he had diligently advanced up the paper’s editing ranks — from assignment editor to night editor, to state editor, and then to political editor, an important position in a state known for its influence on presidential primaries.
Leys was hoping to become a managing editor, a role he’d dreamed of having ever since he was a journalism student working for a student newspaper at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. But then his boss, storied reporter and editor Richard Tapscott, gave him a sharp dose of reality. As Leys remembers it, Tapscott told him he wasn’t qualified to become a top editor, because he didn’t have much reporting experience.
Leys faced a decision: He could remain content in his role as a mid-level editor at Iowa’s most prestigious newspaper, or he could go out and report. Hesitantly, he chose the latter. The choice permanently thrust him in a new direction, putting him on the path that would eventually bring him to MIT as a Knight Science Journalism Fellow. And he hasn’t looked back.
After his fateful conversation with Tapscott, Leys took a health reporting job that had just opened up at The Register. Leys recalls that he “didn’t know anything” about the beat, but he “knew it was interesting.” And he soon found out that it was full of surprises — so long as he was willing to follow unexpected leads.
A case in point was last year, when Leys received a string of mysterious emails from obviously masked accounts about a spate of deaths at the Glenwood Resource Center, a state-run institution in rural Iowa that cares for adults with severe intellectual disabilities. The messages struck a chord, Leys said. “Families struggle everywhere, but they especially struggle in rural areas to both find care and also to find understanding, and not just feel like an outcast.” Following his intuition, he responded to the emails. So began the reporting for what would become an April 2019 feature story exposing an alarming spike in deaths at the facility — and widespread concerns about its quality of care.
Leys’ reporting at The Des Moines Register has covered a vast range of topics, from in-depth health reports vital to everyday Iowans, to presidential campaign stories that grab national attention. But for most of his reporting career, his primary focus has been mental health.
Last year, Leys’ ambitions to raise the bar on mental health reporting led him to step away from the Des Moines newspaper for the first time in three decades. As a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT, he is studying neuroscience. He says he hopes to learn more about the science behind treatments for mental health disorders and diseases, and “what the promise and limits of those treatments are.”
Leys says it’s all in service of doing more accurate, intimate reporting about patient experiences — reporting that he hopes will make readers realize, “Wow, that could be my family.”
This is the seventh in a series of profiles of the 2019-20 Knight Science Journalism fellows, written by students in MIT’s Graduate Program in Science Writing.