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John Carreyrou's 2015 Body of Work

Entrants: John Carreyrou

Affiliation: The Wall Street Journal

Beat Reporting

Year: 2015

Place: First Place

297_1738_444696_980afa96-367d-4850-a3c3-cca706ee3c37_82800_2_1.pdf (1 MB)

List date(s) this work was published or aired.

Oct. 15; Dec. 28; Oct. 16; Nov. 11; Oct. 28, 2015

Provide a brief synopsis of the story or stories, including any significant findings.

Americans have been fascinated with successful entrepreneurs since Horatio Alger days. In recent years, Silicon Valley billionaires like Apple's Steve Jobs, Google's Larry Page and Sergey Brin and Facebook's Mark Zuckerberg have become icons. Elizabeth Holmes looked to be next.

Claiming she was transforming medicine with her blood-testing company, Theranos Inc., the 31-year-old Stanford University dropout became a celebrity. The New Yorker and Fortune published admiring profiles. Time named her one of the 100 Most Influential People in the World. Harvard's medical school appointed her to its prestigious board of fellows. President Obama named her a U.S. ambassador for global entrepreneurship. Theranos became the nation's largest private health-care startup, with Ms. Holmes's stake valued at more than $4.5 billion.

But a series of investigative articles by The Wall Street Journal's John Carreyrou detailed how Ms. Holmes and Theranos often have hit technological snags – with employees filing complaints with three regulatory agencies alleging the company concealed problems – as Theranos performed millions of blood tests on patients.

Mr. Carreyrou faced significant hurdles. Theranos issued litigation threats to his sources, including the widow of a company scientist. When Mr. Carreyrou solicited the company's input about specific patients who said they had questioned Theranos's blood-test results, the company sent its president to personally try to persuade the patients' doctors to change their accounts. David Boies, Theranos's outside counsel, sent the Journal letters threatening to sue it. He twice visited the Journal's headquarters with Theranos lawyers to urge the paper to kill the story. Ms. Holmes declined Mr. Carreyrou's efforts to interview her, despite making numerous other media appearances.

The Journal's Theranos reporting opened a major crack in the technology boom, which had propelled some 125 private tech companies to "unicorn" status – a term coined in Silicon Valley to describe startups valued at a $1 billion or more. Jason Calacanis, an angel investor and technology journalist, called the Journal's reporting "a watershed moment." Speaking on a radio program, he said the Theranos affair "could be the beginning of the end of the cycle." In an email to readers, the editor of Fortune Magazine, which in 2014 had put Ms. Holmes on its cover, wrote that "a high-flying unicorn has been brought closer to earth this morning by a deeply reported story on the front page of the Wall Street Journal," adding that as a former top Journal editor, he "can vouch for the quality of Carreyrou's work." A Fortune reporter later apologized to readers for his earlier coverage in an article entitled: "How Theranos Misled Me...And How I Screwed Up, Too." (Theranos denies misleading Fortune.)

Crediting the Journal's investigation, the New York Times wrote: "While hot Silicon Valley start-ups like Uber and Airbnb have run into regulatory hurdles, as a medical technology company, Theranos has bumped up against something else: the scientific method, which puts a premium on verification over narrative." Mr. Carreyrou's dogged digging and precise writing, in the face of enormous hurdles, is the epitome of investigative journalism. Because of his efforts, the public is more informed about the science of blood testing, and more leery about the lofty valuations in the technology boom.

Explain types of documents, data or Internet resources used. Were FOI or public records act requests required? How did this affect the work?

For the Theranos series, Mr. Carreyrou used a number of documents, including patent data, regulatory complaints by whistleblowers, internal emails and court papers. The amount of publicly available information available on Theranos as a private company was relatively scant. In this instance, we didn't make significant use of FOIA requests.

Explain types of human sources used.

Mr. Carreyrou tapped long-time sources to provide documents, context, and contacts for his stories. He made extensive contact with former employees of Theranos, including regulatory whistleblowers, that he built one-by-one as he dug into the company's activities. A veteran health-care reporter, Mr. Carreyrou also used laboratory specialists, scientists and other health-care experts he's known for years to ensure the Journal was being fair, asking the right questions and providing proper context for its Theranos coverage.

Results:

Though Theranos vigorously denied the allegations, regulators have jumped into action. The Food and Drug Administration sent inspectors to Theranos's facilities, leading the company to stop collecting tiny samples of blood from patients' fingers for all but one of its tests with its tiny vials. As a result, Theranos is using traditional lab machines for more than 240 tests it advertises. In the wake of the Theranos reporting, Walgreens drugstore chain, Theranos's retail partner, has refused to open any more blood-draw sites in its pharmacies until Theranos resolves questions about its technology. Walgreens had previously aimed to roll out thousands of these sites nationwide.

Follow-up (if any). Have you run a correction or clarification on the report or has anyone come forward to challenge its accuracy? If so, please explain.

Theranos has disputed aspects of the coverage, as indicated above, but hasn't pointed to any factual errors. There have been no corrections or clarifications in any of the Theranos articles.

Advice to other journalists planning a similar story or project.

Seize the moment! The media has received much criticism, fairly or unfairly, for missing the signs of excess in the dot-com era and in the mortgage-housing bubble. The Theranos coverage stemmed from a broad examination by the Journal into the technology boom. Mr. Carreyrou seized this historic moment for the public and tech industry to expose and analyze numerous aspects of the current technology era through Theranos. Also, don't rush projects that are difficult or complex. Mr. Carreyrou spent about nine months reporting on Theranos before his first article was published. His coverage is a model of how to be tough and fair at the same time.