2017 Topical Reporting, Small Newsroom finalist

Opioid Coverage

About the Project

No bigger public health crisis is gripping the United States than the epidemic of opioid addiction. STAT, a startup focused on health and medicine, was months old when we decided to marshal a considerable proportion of our resources to explore the causes of this scourge, understand the nature of addiction, and show the human wreckage left in its wake. We reported from across the U.S., pursuing answers from Toledo to Oklahoma and even to Beijing.

Led by reporter David Armstrong, we filed public records requests, examined scientific studies, and reviewed medical records. Our journalists spent time in courtrooms, watched as technicians tested drugs in laboratories, and sat in living rooms with parents who had lost children to overdoses. We interviewed hundreds of people: those suffering from addiction, their families, physicians, treatment specialists, law enforcement agents, medical examiners, public health experts, politicians, and others.

STAT’s reporting on the opioid epidemic is distinguished from competitors’ in several important respects. Nobody else produced a multimedia package as powerful as “Dope Sick.” The piece was a seamless combination of 8,000 words, 20 videos, 2 texted conversations, and 15 scene-setting photographs that more than 100,000 readers stayed with for well over six minutes on average — an eternity for digital media.

We were the first news organization to dig deeply into the emerging threat of illicit fentanyl — a potent opioid — which has become the leading cause of fatal overdoses in several states. Before Prince’s overdose death put fentanyl into headlines, we reported that labs in China were flooding the US and Canada with the drug and modifying its chemical makeup to circumvent bans on shipping the drug. Unlike even much larger competitors, we produced original reporting to explain both the origins of the epidemic and the impact today.

We went to court to unseal records related to the marketing of pain pills blamed for seeding the epidemic more than a decade ago. After one story showed how Purdue Pharma thwarted West Virginia’s efforts to limit prescribing of OxyContin, Sen. Bernie Sanders tweeted: “When I talk about drug corporations being a major threat to the lives of Americans this is what I mean.”

At the same time, we showed that allegedly illegal marketing continues, even resulting in the death of a woman prescribed fentanyl though it wasn’t intended to treat her condition. To help readers understand the crisis, our multimedia team produced insightful data visualizations and video explainers. And we made creative use of social media, such as producing three video “trailers” for Dope Sick, which were viewed hundreds of thousands of times on Facebook, Instagram, and other platforms. The scope of our coverage exceeded anything produced by other outlets: STAT published more than 100 stories on opioids in the past year.