In Depth

CNN Touches Hearts with 'Molly'

Segment Helps Families Reunite With Institutionalized Loved Ones

The first-place award in the TV and radio category for top 20 markets, network or syndicated programming at Health Journalism 2008 will be accepted by senior producer Jennifer Pifer, representing CNN and reporter Elizabeth Cohen. But the real winners are the people who have been reunited with mentally retarded and developmentally disabled family members who had been shut away years ago in institutions and seemingly lost forever.

The CNN team’s story “Where’s Molly?” dealt with a dark chapter in the health care industry, and was inspired by a documentary film by Jeff and Cindy Daly, also called “Where’s Molly?”
Both Ms. Pifer and Ms. Cohen are pleased about receiving the award from AHCJ. “It’s such an honor to win this award. We’re thrilled not only professionally, but this was also a labor of love for us. We’re just thrilled that Molly and the other Mollys’ stories out there are getting this kind of attention,” said Ms. Pifer, a senior medical producer at CNN.

“We are also excited because there were many, many terrific entries that dealt with lots of important and complicated health issues. We are very honored,” said Ms. Cohen, who is CNN’s medical correspondent.

Ms. Cohen and Ms. Pifer regularly collaborate. “That’s how we do everything. We have a very good situation with CNN, much more latitude,” Ms. Pifer said. “I’m proud of our network. When we brought them this story—which is not a very sexy story—they told us, ‘Go ahead. Do it.’ Then, when you do it and get more than a million hits on the Internet, and it’s not porn or Britney Spears, that really says something. Any time I’ve been passionate about a story and I’ve gone to an executive producer and said, ‘Trust me on this. This is going to be good,’” she added, “they do. The great thing at CNN is that if it doesn’t work for Show A, you can pitch it to Show B, or to the Internet. There is a lot of freedom.”

Winning the award from AHCJ also means a lot to these reporters because of the subject matter. “It’s always great when you do a story about a group of people who don’t get a lot of attention in the media who finally get this kind of attention,” said Ms. Pifer, who came across the story of “Where’s Molly?” while visiting her grandfather and thumbing through a copy of Reader’s Digest. “I read about these people in Oregon, a brother’s search for his sister. I got chills as I read the story. I thought it was amazing.”

Ms. Pifer, who didn’t know then that it was the basis of a documentary film, consulted with Ms. Cohen; they agreed it was an excellent idea for a CNN story and approached the Dalys.

“We spoke with Jeff and Cindy and saw how dynamic and passionate they were and learned that Molly’s story is just one of thousands of stories out there,” Ms. Pifer said. “While we were talking to the Dalys, I realized that this was bigger than Molly and that we could take her story and try to help other families reunite with their loved ones who’d been sent away to live in institutions.”

The Daly documentary includes former “60 Minutes” producer Don Hewitt’s efforts behind the scenes. Unlike the feature, CNN’s “Where’s Molly?” was just under seven minutes long.

“His documentary is a documentary. It ran 75 minutes. Our story was the condensed version of what he did,” said Ms. Cohen. “We have the restraints that you always have, the time constraints when you tell a story, but from the feedback we got, our story still got a huge emotional impact. People would e-mail us and call us saying that they sobbed while watching our story. It really hit people. So to be able to do that in a couple of minutes was really gratifying.”

Adds Ms. Pifer, “The television story was a very important element of this, but also, in my opinion, the Web site was just as crucial. When we posted the link to Jeff and Cindy’s Web site, Where’sMolly.net, their site crashed because they received over a million hits within 24 hours.”

Through the link to the Dalys’ site, CNN viewers who were interested could begin their own family searches. “They were working with the ARC link, that’s the Association of Retarded Citizens advocacy group. So when our story aired, we gave viewers an opportunity to reach out to not only the Dalys, but to the ARC link. They had set up a registry on their Web component where people could put in as much information as they knew about a missing relative. We gave caregivers for people the opportunity to put in information as well. They were able to start making some reunifications.”

Online Assist
Ms. Pifer and Ms. Cohen, who regularly collaborate on health care stories, augmented the on-air feature with an online component. “Along with the television story for ‘Where’s Molly?’ we did a very large mosaic on CNN.com. Mosaic, that’s a CNN term,” said Ms. Pifer. “What we did was sit down with Mary Carter, the editor of the CNN health section, and we brainstormed several months before this came out about what would be the perfect mosaic.”

The mosaic is comprised of all the elements that relate to the main on-air story, including video, Web links, blogs and more.

“We had one of our producers who had a brother who was severely developmentally disabled and his mother, who really wrote for the first time about what that was like,” said Ms. Pifer. “We had links to places where people could try to have a reunion with their family. We gave people the opportunity to share their stories. We reached out to people with disabilities, awareness communities, and said, ‘Hey, we’re posting a blog, we’d like you to respond to it.’ This is a group of people who rarely get media coverage. We found that people were really hungry for this opportunity. We expected it to do well; we were floored when it got over a million hits in such a short period of time.”

“Jen put together a historical interactive about our society’s attitudes toward the disabled over time,” said Ms. Cohen. “You really got a snapshot for how much things have changed. For us, we were shocked by the thought that someone could put their disabled child in an institution. One of the most gratifying things to come of this is that several families have reunited because of our story. They saw it on CNN, they linked to the Web site where you can try to get linked back up with relatives you were separated from, and there have been several reunions thanks to our story.”

Ms. Pifer suspected early on that this story would have a big impact. “This took a long time to edit. I would have people stop by and look at the video of the kids in the institutions and they’d say, ‘Oh, is that from Romania? Or is that from another country?’ When I told them that this had actually happened in the United States, they were shocked.”

Working on the health care beat is all Ms. Cohen and Ms. Pifer do, and they prefer it that way.

“I love this. This is all I’ve wanted to do,” said Ms. Cohen.

“I don’t have the medical background that Elizabeth does,” Ms. Pifer says, “but the reason I love covering health stories is that people love health news. I always ask myself, ‘What does my mother want to know? What does my grandma want to know?’ I learn every day. It’s fun to figure out how to tell these stories.”

To these health care news pros, working on “Where’s Molly?” was a tough story, but ultimately worthwhile.

“This is not the kind of story that you can go out and do in an hour. You need patience. You need to sit and listen. You need to let the story unfold. This is a story that took decades to unfold, and this is also a very complicated story about how these institutions came to be, why they lasted so long, why it took such a long time to get rid of them,” said Ms. Cohen. “So you need to sift though not just complicated scientific information, but policy matters. We do medical stories all the time. One of the things we both feel very strongly about is that it’s not enough to just do the latest story, the latest fad. We try to find those stories that really connect with people so that they’ll remember. We’re working on some follow-up stories right now that are going off of Molly’s story, and hearing people talk about how it triggered something in their mind and they asked more questions about their personal history,” she added. “That’s one of the great things about doing medical stories is that you have the opportunity to not only inform but also to touch people emotionally. That’s certainly what ‘Molly’ did.”

“It’s very easy to do the ‘latest studies’ kind of stories,” Ms. Cohen said. “It’s a challenge to do stories like ‘Molly,’ but it’s a challenge. We’re happy to have to put these kinds of stories in perspective. People need it because people are confused.”

Ms. Pifer will be collecting the prize for the CNN team at the March 29 ceremony at Health Journalism 2008.

“I’m looking forward to going, to answering questions on the panel. I love talking shop with other journalists, so this for me is like a major geekfest! And I can’t say it enough: A story like this getting this kind of attention, that’s so gratifying. Not only has Molly’s life been changed by reuniting with her brother, there are other families that are now reuniting because Jeff and Cindy Daly had this vision and they trusted us to share their story and let us do what we do best.”