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AP breaks news on the opioid epidemic and Purdue Pharma, with focus on victims

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AP reporters from three different teams broke distinctive stories on the ongoing drug overdose crisis in the U.S., which has been overshadowed this year by coverage of the coronavirus pandemic.

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A drug user deposits used needles into a container at an exchange in Miami, May 6, 2019. – AP Photo / Lynne Sladky

Medical writer Mike Stobbe, working with reporter Adrian Sainz in Memphis, Tenn., used exclusive state-level reporting to show that overdose deaths are on pace to reach an all-time high this year,eclipsing the record 71,000 from 2019. The reporting allowed AP to be the first major news organization to show with hard data,as opposed to anecdotal reports, that overdoses had increased after the virus began spreading in the U.S.

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Columbus,Ohio,Report for America Ohio statehouse reporter Farnoush Amiri, Washington data team editor Meghan Hoyer and New Jersey-based state government team reporter Geoff Mulvihill produced an accountability story about President Donald Trump’s handling of the opioid crisis and showed how the issue has been overlooked in this year’s presidential race.

Mulvihill also learned through his sources on various opioid legal cases that a major settlement was in the works between the federal government and Purdue Pharma. He coordinated with Department of Justice reporter Mike Balsamo,who used his deep sourcing in the department to get the details, including that the maker of OxyContin would plead guilty to three criminal charges. The AP broke the news and had a full story — complete with criminal charges and details on the $8 billion settlement — on the wire a full hour before the DOJ news conference. The story was used by every virtually every major news organization and trended on Twitter.

The depth of coverage didn’t end with the major news beats. All three stories put victims at the center of the reporting. Stobbe and Sainz led with their story of a 31-year-old Kentucky man who relapsed and died of an overdose after coronavirus restrictions ended his in-person recovery support group.

Amiri and Mulvihill’s story centered on two Ohio women,one who lost her son to opioid addiction and the other who had to adopt her two grandchildren after her son’s addiction made it difficult for him to care for them. Both women turned their grief into advocacy for treatment and changing the stigma around addiction. Hoyer analyzed data from the state health department and Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to provide hard facts that supported what both mothers told Amiri anecdotally: More Ohio residents had died of overdoses in May than any month in at least 14 years,and overdose death rates had risen in the vast majority of Ohio counties during Trump’s first two years in office.

The Purdue settlement story included the voices of both a man who wants to see Purdue executives prosecuted after losing his son to addiction, and a Philadelphia woman in recovery from opioid addiction who called Purdue a “drug cartel.”

Beyond the statistics and breaking news, AP’s stories put victims at the center of the reporting.

The stories showed the depth of reporting across multiple AP teams — in sourcing,surfacing fresh facts and by using the voices of addiction victims and their families.

For revealing stories that broke news and provided a powerful reminder of an ongoing epidemic that has contributed to the deaths of more than 470,000 Americans,Mike Stobbe,Adrian Sainz,Farnoush Amiri,Geoff Mulvihill, Meghan Hoyer and Michael Balsamo win this week’s Best of the States award.

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