Last week, a Reuters investigation revealed that since at least the 1970s, the FDA has downplayed health concerns about talc in powders and cosmetics, deferring again and again to manufacturers. The story follows earlier reporting on how Johnson & Johnson failed to warn customers that its talc powders and cosmetics were tainted with cancer-causing asbestos and that as concerns about Baby Powder mounted, J&J focused on marketing to minority and overweight women. In a Reuters Best: Journalist Spotlight Q&A Lisa Girion gives a behind-the-scene look at how she’s been reporting the story.
Q: How did you get started on reporting the story?
A: After a multi-million-dollar award – most of it punitive damages – to a woman who alleged talc powder caused her ovarian cancer, I wanted to know what had persuaded a jury to judge the company so harshly. Later, my editors had the same question after a jury awarded $4.69 billion to 22 women who alleged Johnson & Johnson’s powders caused their ovarian cancers.
Q: What types of reporting were involved?
A: This involved working old sources, making new ones, scouring court records, watching and reading hours and hours of trial testimony and gathering documents, lots of documents.
Q: What has been the hardest part of the reporting?
A: Many of the key players are dead, and most of J&J’s records detailing its asbestos testing history were, initially at least, confidential. Then I found cryptic references to an old asbestos case in the pre-trial proceedings of some pending lawsuits in New Jersey. All I had to go on was the last name of the plaintiff: Coker. I had no idea when or where the case was filed. One of the law firms on the case was based in Beaumont, Texas, so I called the clerk in the nearest courthouse. Sure enough, after some digging, the clerk found the case in archives. The records showed that in 1997, a woman named Darlene Coker filed a suit alleging that the Baby Powder she used on herself and her two daughters caused her cancer. I tracked down her now grown daughters, who told me their mother filed the suit because she wanted answers. She died without knowing the full story. That story emerged bit by bit. Each time a case went to trial, I read as many of the documents presented to jurors as I could get hold of. It was slow going. At one point, a judge refused – without explanation – to let me read documents that had been presented at trial. Eventually, the story came together in our Dec. 14, 2018 Special Report that showed that J&J knew its raw talc and powders sometimes tested positive for asbestos from the 1970s into the early 2000s and did not report those findings to the FDA.
Q: Why is this an important story to tell our customers?
A: In emails, on social media and in person, people who have used Baby Powder have told me they were grateful for the information. It was also market news. On the day of that first Special Report, J&J’s share price dropped 10%, erasing about $40 billion in value. Editors assigned more reporters, and Reuters published more exclusives and Special Reports. The latest, reported with my Los Angeles colleague Chad Terhune, showed how the U.S. Food and Drug Administration deferred to the industry when safety concerns arose over the years involving talc cosmetics and powders and allowed the manufacturers to test talc as they saw fit.
Q: What makes you passionate about journalism?
A: Journalism has introduced me to characters and taken me places most people only read about. I’ve talked to condemned men at San Quentin, interviewed victims of human rights abuses in Myanmar, flown in the cockpit of a C-5 supplying a military invasion, and watched celebrities touch up their lipstick in the ladies’ room at the Academy Awards. How can you beat that?
Q: What is your beat and what do you find most fulfilling about it?
A: I’m an investigative reporter and often work with teams of reporters and editors across the U.S. and sometimes beyond on deeply researched stories. Right now, I’m working with a team under Data Journalism Editor Janet Roberts that has charted the scope and toll of secrecy in litigation over allegedly dangerous products used by millions. My colleague Dan Levine and I were invited to testify about our findings in Congress, and U.S. House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler said he planned to introduce a bill aimed at making such litigation more open to the public.
Q: What have been your most rewarding and most difficult experiences as a journalist?
A: My work has prompted government investigations, new laws, changes in business practices and other reforms. A series I did a few years ago at the Los Angeles Times changed the lives of a lot of people. The series revealed how health insurers saved money by dropping patients after they were diagnosed with cancer or some other costly condition. It prompted major health insurers to offer to reinstate coverage for thousands of people, and it was cited in the Affordable Care Act, which banned the practice.