In recent weeks, ProPublica has published a major—and scathing—investigative series on the dangers of Tylenol's main active ingredient, acetaminophen. Two years in the making, this series shows yet again the essential role of investigative journalism in providing public information that can literally save lives.
On the chance that the impact of the revelations has already been overtaken by other news, here again is the gist of the stories. Tylenol’s marketing has long emphasized its safety. Among the more memorable of its advertisements was that Tylenol was the pain reliever "hospitals use most" and packages asserted that the pills provided "safe, fast pain relief." It turns out that these claims were dangerously misleading, and were known to be so by both the pharmaceutical manufacturer and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration. To expand the reach of its findings to millions of radio listeners, ProPublica, brought in public radio's This American Life as a collaborator which incisively summarized ProPublica’s evidence of the dangers of acetaminophen. "During the last decade," the first ProPublica piece begins, "more than 1,500 Americans died after taking too much of a drug renowned for its safety.” Moreover, the series and broadcast showed that the FDA has known for decades about the scale of the problem, but has failed to fully implement a succession of recommendations and warnings.
Since its founding in 2007, ProPublica's work in investigative journalism has set a remarkable standard for quality on a range of subjects that is especially impressive when you consider that the total staff is about 40 people, of whom only 23 are reporters. By now, the organization is justifiably recognized as a leader in the field of deeply reported examinations featured on its own website and apps, and often in conjunction with another media partner. This American Life's podcast of the acetaminophen story is an example of superb radio narrative on a highly complex subject. It is, of course, worth noting that all the acetaminophen stories and the radio podcast are available on-demand and gratis. While these accolades may no longer come as a surprise, the purpose of highlighting this investigation is to emphasize that, at their best; the vitality of nonprofit news organizations is an important asset in this era of upheaval in the news business.