Q&A with Stephen Barr Award Winner Meagan Parrish

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Meagan Parrish

Meagan Parrish, senior editor of Pharma Manufacturing magazine, a publication of Putman Media, won the American Society of Business Publication Editors’ 2020 Stephen Barr Award for her December 2019 article, “The Recall Effect.” 

Parrish sheds light on what went into the article, offers advice for other journalists in the B2B investigative realm and more. 

1. What inspired you to write “The Recall Effect?”
The article was supposed to be a regulatory rundown of the biggest changes in the pharma industry. We do this article every December, and we typically look at what’s been happening at the FDA, the biggest, most impactful changes and summarize those changes.

I went into the article assuming that was the route I was going to go, but after conducting my first round of interviews, I talked to someone who talked to me at length with the problems we were having with testing drug imports from China and India, but particularly China. I thought this issue was so important that I changed gears and decided to devote the entire article to just that particular topic.

2. What all went into writing the story?

The first interview I did was the catalyst of the entire piece. The person I spoke to is someone who used to work at the FDA, and he had some fairly sensational things to say. The first thing I had to do was corroborate what he was telling me, such as some of the facts like none of these imports being tested by the FDA for quality.

A lot of work went into making sure what he was saying was true and that he wasn’t just leading me on a wild goose chase, that he wasn’t just some disgruntled former employee with an axe to grind.

After talking to several other regulatory experts, I did find that what he was saying seemed to hold up, and then I also did my best to get in touch with people at the FDA, who are not great about giving interviews in person. They will give statements in an email but they wouldn’t confirm or deny what he was saying, which to me, is basically confirming.

A lot of it was following the trail of breadcrumbs that he had laid out for me and making sure what he was saying was true. From there, it was finding out what it means for those who work inside the industry. It’s not enough to say the problem exists; you have to find out what’s going to happen next and what does it mean for people who are impacted by this on a day-to-day basis.

It was a lot of interviews, a lot of reading, a lot of going through FDA documents, a lot of talking to different people at different parts of the value chain to see how it’s impacting different aspects of the industry.

3. Did any past experiences in your career prepare you to write the story?

There was a time early on when I was a student journalist, and I talked to somebody at the college I was attending who had a pretty sensational accusation about the college. I tried to confirm what this person was telling me, and I couldn’t find anything that confirmed what he was saying. He was an employee with an axe to grind, so that was a wakeup call for me that you can’t just run with the angle the first person you talk to gives you. You have to make sure there’s some evidence to back up their accusations.

Occasionally, someone is going to tell you something because they want to get press, or they want to get their viewpoint out. That experience opened my eyes that sometimes in the media, you can be manipulated by people who just want to make wild claims and that you have to be careful that you don’t just publish those claims without finding some supporting evidence.

4. What was your reaction to learning your article had won the Stephen Barr Award?

I was very surprised. I didn’t know much about the Stephen Barr Award, and it wasn’t on my radar at all. I almost didn’t go to the awards. I coached softball for my kids, and there was a softball game. I almost said, I have this softball game for these 8-year-olds, and they’re counting on me, and I can’t let them down.

They kept it a secret from me but told me I really have to go. I thought something was up because it was weird that they made me go because I have another editor who could’ve spoken for me. Long story short, I was pretty surprised.

5. What advice do you have for other editors when it comes to investigative B2B journalism?

If there’s a topic you think is well known by people in the industry you’re writing for, sometimes I’ll think, what’s the point of writing about this if (readers) already know about this issue? This is definitely one of those topics where I thought, everyone knows we import drugs from China and they know what it means.

Don’t afraid to dive into those topics, even if you think your readers already know about it. This is also true for topics that are getting rehashed in commercial media a lot because what’s often missing from that coverage is an understanding about how these issues impact people inside that issue, the people who are confronting those issues on a day-to-day basis. You have a unique opportunity to offer that insider’s take, and if you keep digging around, typically you’ll find that there’s always an untold side of the story out there waiting to be uncovered.

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