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The story behind Heller’s explosive 1972 ‘Tuskegee Study’ investigation

Former Associated Press investigative reporter Jean Heller stands near a copy of her story printed in the front page of The New York Times at her home in Southport, N.C., on Saturday, July 9, 2022. In July 1972, Heller broke the story about the U.S. Public Health Service study in which Black men in Alabama went untreated for syphilis so researchers could document the disease's effects. (AP Photo/Allen G. Breed)

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AP national writer and visual journalist Allen Breed and intern Alyse Martin provided the first behind-the-scenes look at one of American journalism’s biggest scoops: how the AP’s Jean Heller, then a 29-year-old reporter and the only woman on the wire service’s fledgling investigative team, broke the story of a notorious government experiment on Black men in rural Alabama.

For the 50th anniversary of the AP exclusive on the Tuskegee syphilis study — where 600 Black men were left untreated for venereal disease for more than 40 years — Breed was assigned to interview Heller on camera for a video that would accompany a republication of the original story that AP broke on July 25,1972.

But after spending hours with Heller and learning the story behind the story,global investigations editor Ron Nixon decided that a separate piece on Heller was warranted. Breed assembled his video,text reporting and photos,then worked quickly to write an engaging narrative of how a federal whistleblower passed documents to AP’s Edie Lederer,who then shared them with Heller. Investigative intern Alyse Marin coproduced the compelling video featuring archival material and Breed’s interviews, including Heller and a descendant of one of the men in the study.

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In photo at left, former AP investigative reporter Jean Heller works on a novel at her home in Southport, N.C., July 9, 2022. Fifty years ago Heller broke the story about the U.S. Public Health Service study in which Black men in Alabama went untreated for syphilis so researchers could document the disease’s effects. At right, a portrait of Heller while she was working for AP is displayed at her home. – AP Photo / Allen G. Breed

Although other news outlets had stories marking the 50th anniversary of the AP disclosure of the “Tuskegee Study,” no one had the key interview with Heller. The behind-the-scenes piece was one of the most-read stories on AP News for July 25,and the video drew more than 100,000 views on social media.

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