Best of the Week

Latest

Pro-painkiller echo chamber shaped policy amid drug epidemic

AP_16253810937091.jpg

Combine the capabilities of The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity, and this is what you can get: A two-part blockbuster that exposed the efforts of the opioid industry and allied groups to stymie limits on the use of its powerful drugs, and detailed how they spent more than $880 million on lobbying and political contributions over the past decade.

The genesis of the project was a conversation between Tom Verdin, editor of AP’s state government team, and Geoff Mulvihill, a member of that team. Mulvihill, based in Mount Laurel, N.J., has covered the opioid crisis sweeping the nation, and the two hit upon the idea of trying to determine the extent of the pharmaceutical industry’s exerting influence in state legislatures across the country.

They knew it would be a heavy lift. So, with the blessing of Brian Carovillano, vice president for U.S. news, Verdin contacted Kytja Weir at the Center for Public Integrity, a nonprofit, Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative news organization known for its data-driven projects, to gauge its interest. As it happens, the organization had just begun looking into a related issue, the political influence of nonprofit groups representing patients in chronic pain. The center agreed immediately to a reporting project with the AP, and the joint work began in March.

“A complex investigative project is hard enough on its own. This one had the added complication of being the first time the AP had partnered with an outside news organization, and one that is not even an AP member”

“A complex investigative project is hard enough on its own. This one had the added complication of being the first time the AP had partnered with an outside news organization, and one that is not even an AP member,” Verdin says. “It was a full partnership, meaning every step of the process was to be shared. How do you communicate? How do the reporters work together? How do you write, and then edit, the stories so everyone can have a finger in them at the same time? How do people who have never worked together, let alone met, collaborate on such a sprawling and difficult project without frustrations setting in and derailing the work?”

Responsibilities were divided: The center would take the lead on gathering and analyzing the data, both organizations would fully collaborate on the reporting, and the AP would handle the other media platforms — photos, video and graphics.

Center data journalist Ben Wieder collected and analyzed campaign finance and lobbying data covering 2006 through 2015 from the National Institute on Money in State Politics, Center for Responsive Politics, Federal Election Commission, the U.S. House of Representatives Office of the Clerk and the IRS. Mulvihill and Matthew Perrone, an AP health reporter based in Washington, D.C., teamed with center reporter Liz Essley Whyte; they reviewed hundreds of documents and interviewed more than 150 officials, experts, advocates and others to gain insights into how the political process influenced the response to the opioid epidemic.

Weir, the center’s manager for this project, directed the reporting along with Verdin. She set up a communication channel in the web tool Slack, which allowed for real time conversations and information sharing. Kristin Gazlay, AP’s director of top stories, was the project’s final editor through the intricate process of bringing it to fruition.

Staffers in 26 states did local sidebars; data sets were distributed to AP customers three weeks before the series went live, to allow them to write their own stories. A national webinar to explain the material was attended by about 80 reporters.

Ap 16257538116188
This undated photo provided by Jennifer Weiss-Burke on Sept. 12, 2016 shows her and her son, Cameron Weiss. Weiss-Burke said his descent into drug addiction started with an opioid prescription a doctor wrote for him for a wrestling injury. – Courtesy Jennifer Weiss-Burke via AP

Among the project’s findings:

_ The opioid industry and its allies contributed to roughly 7,100 candidates for state-level offices, with the largest amounts going to governors and the lawmakers who control legislative agendas, such as house speakers, senate presidents and health committee chairs.

_ The drug companies and allied groups have an army of lobbyists averaging 1,350 per year, covering all 50 state capitals.

_ For over a decade, a group called the Pain Care Forum has met with some of the highest-ranking health officials in the federal government, while quietly working to influence proposed regulations on opioids and promote legislation and reports on the problem of untreated pain. The group consists of drugmakers and opioid-friendly nonprofits they help fund, and is coordinated by the chief lobbyist for Purdue Pharma, the maker of OxyContin.

Play for the project was extraordinary. Sunday’s story topped AP Mobile that day, and together the stories appeared on more than 150 front pages. The project inspired editorials across the country.

The Vindicator of Youngstown, Ohio, called on state and federal legislators to heed the “exhaustive, revealing” reports: “The news stories delved into the politics behind the nation’s opioid addiction epidemic, and what they uncovered was truly disturbing.”

For a breakthrough collaboration on an issue of great national importance, Mulvihill, Perrone, Whyte and Wieder share this week’s $500 prize.

Contact us