Q&A with OWM Print Award winner, Rosa Furneaux

Highlights from our Instagram Live with OWM Print Award winner, Rosa Furneaux about how to report a major health story. 


A conversation with Rosa Furneaux who produced an award winning story for the Bureau of Investigative Journalism about a global health crisis involving prescription drugs.

After speaking with doctors in Brazil who voiced their concerns, journalist Rosa Furneaux started investigating a substandard drug being prescribed to children in the country. It was a brand of asparaginase, a cancer treatment drug, used to battle acute lymphoblastic leukaemia. Through her research, she discovered that not only were a variety of brands producing these poor quality medicines, some of which were contaminated, but that these brands were being sent to more than 90 countries around the world. Read Rosa’s story here


Q: What was the most surprising part for you? The fact that the story, which started with one brand in Brazil, ended up being such a global story you reported on?

A: I think the scope of how bad this problem was, was the most surprising thing for me about this story. We all hear about how medicines in low middle income countries aren’t as good as medicines in the West. But what that actually means on the ground, what that means for children, patients, their families, takes an understanding of the impact of one particular medicine to really drive home.

We came into possession of the sort of dozen or so brand disparage names that have been found to be substandard. As I started to run the brand names and the results started to come up, my jaw hit the floor, because it was just page after page after page of results. We weren’t going back any further than the last five years. All of these countries have received this brand and that makes it very likely that children in all of these countries have had it given to them. It was late at night, I was sat here at my desk, I was running the brand names and I just I couldn’t believe what it was that I was seeing.


Q: What would you advise a journalist who might be working on a story similar to this? What would your top three tips be?

A: Okay, first hit, get your data in order. You aren’t gonna be able to get anywhere unless you have a really, really good systemic system for organising all of your documents and data. Let me put number two and number three together because they’re linked. There were points in the reporting where I felt really alone and that’s not about my team. My team was very supportive. But the story started to grow and it didn’t get out of control, but it just kind of started to get much bigger than I realised. I’d bitten off more than I could chew without realising that that was going to happen. And so there were moments where I thought, “What have I done?”, “Can I do this?” “Can I get to the end?” Alongside that was the warrior mitigation. We knew that if we named the brands and eventually of course we made that decision, that there were going to be some really unhappy manufacturers and that the threats and mitigation was always there. 

The last point that I say to people is have faith in yourself and in your team. If a story is really important to you, don’t drop it. You’ll feel it sometimes kind of slipping through your fingers. Don’t worry, you’re going to be okay. If you really care about something and you think that it’s really important, come back to, “Why am I doing this story?” “Why am I putting myself through all of this?” For me, it was the fact that children around the world were receiving bad medicine and they shouldn’t be, and someone should do something about it. And so whenever I got scared, whenever I sort of thought maybe, “I can’t do this”, that is  what I came back to.

Have faith in yourself and keep moving forward.


Q: So how can people cover health better while prioritising the people in the story, the characters in the story?

A: I think that was a sign early on for me that keeping a patient front and centre in the story and in your mind is so crucial. It’s also the thing that the reader is going to latch on to. So in a story that we published, I start with Isidor and her mother, Emily, because I want readers to understand that, although we’re about to go through several 1000 threads when we’re talking about really complicated supply chains and regulatory issues, what is at the heart of this. I  think that reminded me that after more than a year of reporting and being inside all the documents, all the data, all those spreadsheets, this was where the heart of the story was and I needed to make sure that readers felt that as well. So I think always coming back to finding those studies, finding those people who can really show you why you should care when you’re reading, I think that’s really important. Science is important but don’t get lost in the science. Always come back to the patients and the reason why the science is so important.


Watch the full session on Instagram.