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AP wins access as opioids victims confront Purdue’s Sackler family

Linda Zebrowski, left, and her daughter Jill Cichowicz pose for a picture with a photo of Zebrowski's son, Scott Zebrowski, and Cichowicz son, Carter Cichowicz, after they made a statement during a hearing in New York, Thursday, March 10, 2022. People who lost loved ones or years of their own lives to opioid addiction are getting their first and perhaps only chance to confront members of the Sackler family who own OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma. Thursday's virtual court hearing is being run by a U.S. Bankruptcy Court judge. (AP Photo/Seth Wenig)

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New Jersey-based state government team reporter Geoff Mulvihill leveraged years of source building and evenhanded beat coverage of opioids litigation in the U.S., securing huge access wins for the AP as Purdue Pharma, maker of the prescription painkiller OxyContin, reached a nationwide settlement with thousands of state and local governments in the U.S.

After the judge signaled he was inclined to approve the settlement, an unprecedented hearing came next: People who had become addicted to opioids, and parents who had lost loved ones to addiction, would finally get their chance in court to directly confront the family that owned Purdue Pharma. Their statements would undoubtedly provide the most dramatic moments after years of litigation.

But there was a major problem — access.

The hearing would happen in federal court,where photographers and video journalists are not allowed,and where the judge had limited Mulvihill and other reporters to audio-only access during nearly two years of virtual hearings. AP needed to not only hear their statements, but also see their emotions and any reaction from the Sackler family members who were designated to listen to them.

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After making a statement to the makers of OxyContin during a virtual hearing from New York, March 10, 2022, Tiffinee Scott shows a photo of the many pill bottles her daughter had accumulated before her death. – AP Photo / Seth Wenig

Mulvihill’s first big win came in persuading the judge to give AP full access to the Zoom link so we could watch the hearing. This alone was a rare and crucial victory in the federal courts. But Mulvihill,knowing that several of the victims would speak from a New York law office,secured even more important access based on his relationship with the victims’ attorneys. He arranged permission for a reporter,a photographer and a video journalist to be present at the law firm,allowing AP to have direct access to the victims for quotes after their statements to the Sacklers,as well as portraits by Seth Wenig and video by Joseph Frederick.

That all-formats access gave AP highly personal coverage of the hearing, producing a mainbar, a sidebar with pullout quotes from the victims and a second-cycle story based on victim interviews by New York reporter Jennifer Peltz,who was at the firm during the hearing.

Throughout the Purdue case, Mulvihill’s rapport with many of the victims has allowed AP to infuse the coverage with the voices of those most affected by opioid addiction.

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