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Christina Jewett has tailed a Russian mobster, discovered a secret government database kept by the Federal Drug Administration and exposed corrupt doctors and corporations.
Who knew health reporting could be so daring? And what is her secret to finding such exciting and edgy stories in what many consider a staid beat?
“If you’re a health reporter, you shouldn’t be stuck in the corner of the newsroom,” said Jewett, senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News and an award-winning journalist, on Monday night. “Your beat should also include going to the courthouse, looking up your local hospital, going to the statehouse, looking at what legislation is, and what kind of oversight should have been in place.”
Jewett was the keynote speaker for the 14th annual Paul J. Schatt Memorial Lecture named in honor of the former Arizona Republic reporter, editor and columnist who taught public affairs reporting to students at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication for more than 30 years as an adjunct faculty member.
Jewett’s talk, “Drugs, Devices and Deception: Reporting on America’s Health System,” on Monday evening was a continuation of the spring 2020 “Must See Mondays” lecture series at the Cronkite School on ASU’s Downtown Phoenix campus.
“Christina Jewett is one of the nation’s most important health care reporters. It’s because of her that the consumers across the country now have access to medical device injury records that were previously kept hidden from the public,” said Kristin Gilger, senior associate dean and Reynolds Professor in Business Journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication. “She exposed a troubling lack of care for teens and young adults with autism and how cuts at nursing homes in New York were hurting patients. This is the kind of journalism that makes a difference in people’s lives.”
Jewett’s presentation included a chronology of her 18 years in the profession, with stints at the Sacramento Bee, ProPublica, the Center for Investigative Reporting and Kaiser Health News. Her work has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Chicago Tribune, USA Today and CNN, covering the health care system spectrum.
Her first big story was a collaborative piece in 2005 with journalist Dorothy Korber on the Sacramento County Jail’s health system. Their piece focused on Anthony Jose Gonzalez, a man who was arrested for drug possession. Gonzalez entered the jail with 10 fingers and left with nine a year later. His finger got infected from a splinter, and he didn’t receive treatment until a judge spotted it in court. He ordered immediate medical care but it was too late — the finger had to be amputated.
Gonzalez’s case was symptomatic of the substandard treatment given to inmates, which included being beaten by guards and chained to urine-stained floors, and sanitary napkins being withheld from female inmates while in custody. The piece led to sweeping changes in the jail’s health system.
“This really struck a chord with the community,” Jewett said. “The county board of supervisors held a special hearing and hundreds of people came out to testify how they were treated in the jail.”
Jewett used that journalistic victory in her cover letter to get a job with ProPublica in New York City, where she wrote about mysterious deaths occurring at Psychiatric Solutions, Inc., a for-profit chain of psychiatric hospitals.
Her investigation included a large national public records request, which revealed a string of deaths due to abuse, neglect and substandard patient care. It led to a Justice Department investigation for investor fraud and several class action lawsuits.
In her current job for Kaiser Health News, Jewett discovered in 2019 that for nearly 20 years, the Federal Drug Administration was striking deals with medical device makers to keep millions of malfunction and injury reports out of a public database — and instead letting device makers submit reports to a secret database, hidden from public view. The hidden database included 500,000 reports of injuries or malfunctions tied to breast implants and 66,000 surgical stapler malfunctions.
That story, “Hidden Harm,” landed her a top prize in the recent Bartlett and Steele Awards for Investigative Journalism. Her other awards include a 2019 National Press Foundation "Feddie"; a 2018 Katherine Schneider medal from National Center for Disability Journalism; and the 2011 George Polk award winner for medical reporting.
Through it all, Jewett said she relied mostly on insider tips, data analysis and gut instinct when reporting her stories.
“It’s always super helpful if you can find an insider on the topic you’re writing about who can guide you to the right corners of bureaucracy to find the information you want,” Jewett said, specifically addressing Cronkite students. “And just be persistent. Different people have different reasons to talk. So when you’re sitting there staring at your computer screen, psyching yourself out that someone’s not going to talk to you, just pick up the phone because you have to know … you’ve got to keep smiling and dialing as I say.”
Top photo: Christina Jewett, senior correspondent for Kaiser Health News, speaks about her experience reporting on FDA and medical devices during "Must See Mondays" at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication on Monday, March 2. Photo by Meg Potter/ASU Now