Recipe for journalistic impact: Time, dogged analysis and human contact

Commentary: A behind-the-scenes look at the Center's black lung investigation

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When Johns Hopkins Medicine disclosed last week that it had terminated its discredited black lung unit, those of us who had a role in the Center for Public Integrity’s Pulitzer-winning 2013 series, “Breathless and Burdened,” felt no small amount of satisfaction.

The project, conceived and flawlessly executed by reporter Chris Hamby, now with BuzzFeed, represents the best of what some might call old-school investigative journalism. It yielded immediate results: activities within the Johns Hopkins black lung unit were suspended two days after a Center-ABC News report showed that it essentially was an appendage of the coal industry, its doctors blaming even obvious cases of black lung on anything but coal dust.

The U.S. Department of Labor set about revising its policies to ensure that miners’ claims weren’t being denied on the basis of discredited medical information. Legislation to reform the federal benefits system was introduced.

Most important, sick miners and their families felt that they finally were being heard. When Illene Barr, whose husband, Junior, died of black lung in October 2011, learned that Hopkins had shuttered its black lung unit, she was elated. The unit, led by Dr. Paul Wheeler, had twice opined that Junior Barr’s lung problems had been caused either by tuberculosis or a disease called histoplasmosis, triggered by a fungus found in bird and bat droppings. An autopsy revealed that Barr did, in fact, have black lung; only then was his wife awarded benefits.

“I think it’s wonderful, the work you all have done,” Ms. Barr said by telephone from her home in Sophia, West Virginia. “That’s what’s been needed. It’s a good shot in the arm for the miners.”

Her lawyer, John Cline, who has represented countless black lung victims, said the impact of the Center’s series has been “huge. The Department of Labor has worked its tail off to try to address these problems and provide remedies. I know that the system is working more fairly now than it was before. I think there are significantly fewer miners who are losing their claims because they are being misled or just overwhelmed with legal tactics.”

Having been a journalist 37 years, I could go on and on about the value of old-fashioned, grind-it-out investigative reporting and powerful storytelling. But let’s hear from reporter Hamby instead.

“There are probably just a handful of news outlets in the country where a reporter could do a project like this,” Hamby, on assignment abroad for BuzzFeed, wrote in an email to me earlier this week. “It takes great patience and support from editors, along with guidance and a far-sighted view of what the project could be and what it would take to get there. That means recognizing that there’s no template for a good story.

“You can’t do this type of story by phone or email. You have to go to miners’ homes in the southern West Virginia coalfields, spend time in rural health clinics, visit the labs of researchers on the front lines monitoring the disease. You also can’t do this type of story quickly. You have to figure out the key questions, then figure out how to answer them. For the first installment of the project, the story on the withholding of key medical evidence by lawyers, I needed to figure out what had happened in specific cases. That meant acquiring copies of voluminous case files – hundreds of thousands of pages in all – and reading and logging them. For the second installment, on the Johns Hopkins program to read X-rays, I needed to determine exactly what the leader of the unit’s record was. That meant reading through thousands of legal decisions and creating a spreadsheet detailing the reading of about 3,400 films. For a few months, I did almost nothing but that, which is an incredible luxury not afforded many reporters.”

Hamby said he was gratified to see the Labor Department reforms and the Black Lung Benefits Act of 2015. But “the thing that matters most to me is when I hear from miners or their family members,” he wrote. “I’ve gotten to shake the hands of men who won their claims after previously being denied. Just last week…I heard from the daughter of a miner who had died of black lung. Her father had meant the world to her and made her the woman she was today, she said. The stories, she said, had given voice to those like her father who long had suffered in silence.”

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