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WVU faculty and students contribute to Washington Post article

Reporting team scours through records at the Boone County Courthouse

A West Virginia University Reed College of Media faculty member and student journalist are co-authors on a Washington Post story that tracks the state’s nearly 20-year history of lawsuits against drug companies and exposes the opioid epidemic’s effect on children in West Virginia.

Emily Corio , teaching associate professor at the College of Media and a long-time journalist in West Virginia, spent months reporting on the story with Debbie Cenziper, a contributing reporter for the investigative team at The Post and former assistant professor of journalism at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. WVU journalism senior Douglas Soule and GW journalism senior Kelly Hooper are also co-authors on the story, which lists an additional six students and WVU faculty member Mary Kay McFarland as contributors.

“I came to West Virginia as a new, young journalist in 2001, just as the opioid epidemic was unfolding and reported on it then,” Corio said. “Last year, when we began brainstorming for this story, we realized it was an important issue that hadn’t been covered in depth at the national level, and we had this opportunity to report on it from West Virginia.”

The reporting team combed through court documents that provided details on West Virginia lawsuits against opioid manufacturers and distributors, researched how settlement money had been allocated and spent months interviewing West Virginians who could shed light on the lawsuits and the child welfare system.  

“I really enjoyed going through litigation documentation,” Soule said. “I travelled to several West Virginia counties that were impacted by opioids and went through the story of the epidemic through the thousands of pages of litigation, which was really insightful.”

Earlier this year, Corio and Cenziper (now director of investigative reporting at Northwestern University) led a collaboration between WVU and GW, meant to bridge the urban/rural divide by bringing together student journalists from different parts of the country.

WVU Journalism senior Douglas Soule interviews attorney Hunter Mullens in Barbour County.

Students conducted field interviews with case workers, health professionals caring for babies with neonatal abstinence syndrome (NAS), grandparents raising their children’s children, government officials and the attorneys who were representing the state of West Virginia in lawsuits against pharmaceutical companies.

After months of research and field reporting, the students created multimedia stories and launched a website to showcase their work.

“I was working with other WVU students who were really passionate about this project and that was maximized because we were able to meet students from another part of the nation who were equally as enthusiastic,” Soule said. “And we were able to be ambassadors for West Virginia – to share insight into the state, and the people of the state, and the culture and the mindsets within the state. The GW students were learning about Appalachia and we were learning how to represent Appalachia.”

The Washington Post article, “‘They looked at us like an easy target’: Inside West Virginia's opioid battle,” published online Friday, Oct. 18, and on the front page of the printed edition Monday, Oct. 21. The students listed as contributors in The Post article include Anna Saab, Patrick Orsagos and Madison Weaver from WVU and Arianna Dunham, Halle Kendall and Shayna Greene from GW.

See student stories from this project online at https://generationopioids.wvu.edu. Read more about the WVU-GW partnership at mediacollege.wvu.edu/wvu-gw.