Readers’ Representative Journal

L.A. Times OxyContin report receives investigative journalism honors

OxyContin pills
A bottle of Oxycontin pills.
(Liz O. Baylen / Los Angeles Times)

The Los Angeles Times is one of three news organizations honored for investigative reporting by the Donald W. Reynolds National Center for Business Journalism.

The Times’ “OxyContin’s 12-Hour Problem” by Harriet Ryan, Lisa Girion and Scott Glover received the bronze award in the 10th annual Barlett & Steele Awards for Investigative Journalism, the Reynolds Center announced Tuesday.

The Times investigation found that OxyContin, the nation’s bestselling painkiller, wears off hours earlier for many patients than its claim of 12-hour relief, worsening the addiction epidemic surrounding the drug. In reporting the story, The Times obtained thousands of pages of internal documents from Purdue Pharma, covering more than three decades of the drug’s development and marketing.

Los Angeles Times reporter Harriet Ryan
Los Angeles Times reporter Harriet Ryan (Jay L. Clendenin / Los Angeles Times)

The documents, which Ryan described as “internal memos, letters, emails, field sales reports, research studies and other materials written by Purdue scientists, executives, sales representatives, security personnel and attorneys,” indicated the firm knew about the product’s problem even before its 1996 debut, then continued to insist that it worked for 12 hours despite growing evidence from doctors and others that it didn’t.

More than half of long-term OxyContin users are taking doses that public health officials consider dangerously high, according to an analysis of nationwide prescription data conducted for The Times.

How The Times reported the OxyContin story »

The story was cited by Sen. Edward J. Markey (D-Mass.) in calling for a federal investigation of the duration issue, and the attorney general of New Hampshire cited it as he launched an investigation of Purdue Pharma’s role.

“The Los Angeles Times took a huge problem from its very beginning and provided heartbreaking examples of how something so human had been hidden for so long,” the judges said of the investigation.

The Los Angeles Times took a huge problem from its very beginning and provided heartbreaking examples of how something so human had been hidden for so long.

— Barlett & Steele Awards judges

Also honored were the Center for Public Integrity’s International Consortium of Investigative Journalists, which received the gold award for “The Panama Papers.” The consortium and more than 100 media partners worldwide published a trove of leaked documents from inside a Panama-based law firm that creates offshore companies to hide financial activities of the rich and powerful.

The Wall Street Journal received the silver award for “Testing Theranos,” a 10-month investigation of the laboratory firm that claimed to test patient health by drawing just a few drops of blood with a finger prick but which seriously misled patients and investors.

The awards from the Reynolds Center are named for the renowned investigative team of Don Barlett and Jim Steele and celebrate the best in investigative business journalism. The Reynolds Center is part of the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.

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