The opioid trial of The State of Oklahoma v. Johnson & Johnson wrapped up recently, and its outcome could have ramifications on a national scale. If the state prevails, Johnson and Johnson could have to spend billions to help ease the epidemic in Oklahoma. The verdict could be handed down later this summer, so until then we must wait.
StateImpact Oklahoma health reporter Jackie Fortier was the only professional reporter who was at the courthouse during all 33 days of the trial. She filed 49 radio spots for Oklahoma NPR stations and 37 spots for NPR, did four live interviews with Morning Edition, All Things Considered, and 1A, reported four NPR feature stories, three local feature stories, one international interview with Irish Public Radio, and live-tweeted throughout the trial.
We asked Jackie to reflect on her experience covering the trial and the importance of local journalism.
What was your experience like covering a trial with such national exposure? How did you see your role in this experience?
Covering the opioid trial was a lot like reporting on a wildfire. It's different every day, it takes very long hours, and you're never sure when it will be over. I was alternatively touched by witnesses who described being addicted to opioids and riveted by the details of Johnson & Johnson's business dealings. It's a hugely important story that people are very interested in, but most can't watch nine hours of court each day. I saw my role as sifting through the hours of testimony to report on not only what happened, but what it means for the state's future.
You are the only professional reporter who covered the whole trial. How do you feel about that?
I was surprised. It says a lot about the state of journalism that a colossal trial, worth billions of dollars and one that had national implications got very little local coverage. The TV stations stopped coming after a few days. Only one newspaper sent a reporter each day, but it wasn't always the same person. I didn't know that I would be the only one when I committed to attend to what turned out to be 33 days in court. I'm fortunate that I work for StateImpact Oklahoma, and have listener supporters who value context.
This is my buddy @lukehalltv. He's been in the media room with me all 32 days of the trial. He's a journalism student at OU. He's intelligent and fun to be around. If you have a journalism internship or job opportunity, he has my full endorsement. pic.twitter.com/t9yv1rWi3b
— Jackie Fortier (@JackieFortier) July 15, 2019
Describe a moment during your coverage when the narrative pivoted or turned in an unexpected way.
I filed newscast spots every day because there were always new revelations coming out of the court proceedings. The blockbuster moment for me was realizing during a kind of esoteric line of questioning that Johnson & Johnson had profited from both opioid sales and the sale of opioid addiction treatment drugs, like buprenorphine and Naloxone. That means that until 2016, when they sold the companies, almost any opioid or opioid treatment drug sold in the U.S. benefited Johnson & Johnson's bottom line. That was huge. I wrote spots and I did a longer story.
You are the voice of health-related stories for public radio in Oklahoma. Has this experience changed that in any way?
It hasn't changed it, but the trial has made me even more aware of the trickle-down effect that policy in one area of public health can have. For example, we know that addiction is the main reason that Oklahoma now has more than 10,000 children in foster care. By helping people get access to medication-assisted treatment, mental health counseling from an early age and other services like drug court, more parents could keep their children, which is better for everyone. I'm privileged to be able to shine a light into these areas and ask questions of people in power. I love my job. I feel fortunate that listeners who chose to contribute to public radio make it possible for me to do it. Sometimes, those who write legislation or make policy tend to forget that it dramatically affects people's lives. My job is to remind them.
Do you see public radio stepping in to fill a void of journalism in this state? And if so, how does that tie to “public support” of your work?
The Oklahoma opioid trial has clearly shown how vital public radio is in this state. If StateImpact Oklahoma didn't exist, there wouldn't have been a reporter there every day following the proceedings. It's essential to our democracy for voters to know how their elected officials, in this case, the state attorney general, is representing us in court and what they plan to do if and when there is a payout. Our listeners are smart and curious and value the context and human element that we work so hard to provide in every story. I couldn't have covered the opioid trial without listener support, it's vital in everything we do, and you can see that when you look at commercial news stations. That's the difference. That's why they weren't in court every day, and I was. They have to chase stories that have the highest ratings for their advertisers. We don't, because our excellent listeners support us.
You coordinated and filed with NPR for months leading up to and during the trial. Do you have any exciting stories to share?
Getting up at 4:30 a.m. to talk to Steve Inskeep was surreal. It was the first day of the trail and I had been working over Memorial Day weekend to make sure all my gear was ready and writing news spots. I was scheduled to talk to Steve live on Morning Edition for about four minutes. I've been on live radio of course, but never nationally. You speak to producers when they get you on the line, and they asked me what I'd like to eat, to get levels. I said I'd like boysenberry pie, and all of a sudden I heard Steve laughing in my headphones. He said it was a great answer and his favorite is cherry. We only had a few seconds before we went on live, but it was a fun moment.
What will you do now that the trial is over?
Wait for a verdict! No matter how the judge rules, this story isn't over, and won't be for many years. Thousands of Oklahomans are dying annually from overdoses and tens of thousands suffer from opioid use disorder. That will continue to affect all parts of state government, and most importantly, people's lives. I am looking forward to telling their stories. My favorite part of my job is talking to people.
StateImpact Oklahoma and Jackie Fortier's reporting is made possible by the generous support of KOSU members. Become a member today with a pledge of your support.