The second season of the Center for Public Integrity’s podcast, The Heist, tackles some of the biggest drivers of the country’s widening wealth gap.
Its host, Jamie Smith Hopkins, investigates structural inequality and works closely with other reporters doing the same.
Hopkins joined the Center for Public Integrity in 2014 as a reporter, and for the past four years she’s juggled reporting and editing. Her work includes investigations about America’s oil and gas export boom, the federal government’s failure to stop a decades-long string of deaths from a widely available consumer product and the woefully insufficient response to the mental health impacts of worsening disasters.
She previously spent 15 years as a reporter for The Baltimore Sun. Honors for her stories include awards from the Society of Environmental Journalists, the Education Writers Association and the Society for Advancing Business Editing and Writing.
On top of her work on The Heist, over the past year Hopkins investigated the discriminatory structure of the Paycheck Protection Program, from the lack of prioritization for businesses that most needed the help to the way the loans recreated a legacy of redlining. She also co-edited national investigations into wage theft and school policing.
How have you seen Public Integrity change in the years you’ve been a part of this organization, and especially amid a global pandemic that shaped our world and the focus of our reporting?
In some ways, it’s changed a lot. We used to be a collection of teams covering very different topics, and those teams rarely reported together. Now we’re all focused on the same big thing. Inequality is a defining issue of our age, an explanation lurking behind everything from the persistent racial wealth gap to out-of-control climate change.
What’s not a change: We’re still doing deep, careful and complicated reporting.
The COVID-19 pandemic makes many inequality problems worse — and harder to ignore. We know people will be feeling the effects for years to come, and we know we need to keep digging in, exposing the problems and sharing the solutions communities are trying.
Has the way you view the role and impact of Public Integrity’s crucial journalism changed in your promotion from reporter to editor?
It’s given me a broader perspective. Instead of hyperfocusing on one investigation at a time, I’m helping with a bunch. I love talking to colleagues about their work and brainstorming what else we could be doing, what would make stories stronger, how to reach the readers who need the information we’re finding out.
Many newsrooms make you choose between editing and reporting, but I get to do a bit of both here. Reporting helps my editing and vice versa. I’ve learned a lot by working with the awesome journalists here.
What has been your proudest achievement in your time at Public Integrity?
In 2015, I heard about a horrifying example of weak worker-safety and consumer protections: People were dying while using a product you could buy from retailers across the country. Year after year, this kept happening, and regulators hadn’t put a stop to it.
The product? Paint remover with methylene chloride, a solvent that can asphyxiate you if its fumes build up. That makes it dangerous to use in enclosed spaces like bathrooms.
I pored through government data and identified dozens of accidental exposure deaths since 1980 in the U.S. that were linked to methylene chloride. Experts considered that an undercount because the solvent can also kill by triggering a heart attack, easily masquerading as a death from natural causes.
It was heartbreaking talking to survivors. The mother of an 18-year-old who died on the job. The sister of a woman who was stripping paint from a desk in her attic. The worker who tried to save an unconscious colleague and almost died himself, so rapidly did the fumes knock him out.
After the story ran, I heard from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency that staffers there were working on a rule to stop the string of deaths. Rulemaking is laborious, and the proposal came out in the final days of the Obama administration.
The Trump administration, which wanted to cut rules rather than add them, put the proposal on ice.
More people died.
And relatives of the newest victims, seeing from my story that their loss was no isolated incident, joined forces to pressure the EPA to act.
In 2019, the agency banned retail sales of paint removers with methylene chloride. It wasn’t the complete ban the families wanted, given the opportunities for continued workplace exposures, but it was a remarkable turnaround in an administration laser-focused on deregulation.
So often, the problems we report on are complex. Vested interests work to delay or block solutions. It can take years to see change.
But deep investigations give the public information that can make the difference. In this case, people used it to save lives.
You spent five years focusing on environmental inequality. Why do you think environmental reporting is important, especially at an investigative nonprofit like ours?
It’s pretty simple: Pollution harms health and cuts lives short. People with less money and communities of color are more likely to be exposed, whether the contamination is in the air, water or soil. And though global warming increases risks everywhere — floods, heat waves, fire, crop shortages — the consequences are not evenly felt.
It’s the epitome of inequality. That’s why I’m so glad we partnered with Columbia Journalism Investigations on a series called “Hidden Epidemics,” focusing on the public health response to climate change. What the team found is that the country is already failing to protect people. It’s a warning that work is needed now, not decades down the road, to save lives and prevent harm.
We collaborated with local journalists around the country on the project, sharing data and helping each other get more stories out on the topic. We knew that people needed to know how these impacts were hitting their communities.
Why do you think people reading this should support Public Integrity’s work?
Investigative journalism is slow and hard. It can take months, occasionally years, to see complicated stories through. And it’s absolutely necessary for democracy. We need good information to make good decisions, whether we’re voting, crafting policy, working for change or simply trying to go about our lives.
I love that this newsroom is committed to the work and focused on such a critical topic. I love the collaborative spirit of the place. I love that we have a talented Freedom of Information Act lawyer on staff who helps extract the documents and data we need for stories when government agencies don’t turn them over as they should — and, by the way, he also fact-checks our investigations to make sure we get both the big picture and the fine details right.
When you support us, you’re supporting that work ethic and our no-paywall philosophy that makes stories available to everyone. You’re also supporting a hopeful view of this country: that we can fix problems and improve lives when we have the information we need to do it.
Help support this work
Public Integrity doesn’t have paywalls and doesn’t accept advertising so that our investigative reporting can have the widest possible impact on addressing inequality in the U.S. Our work is possible thanks to support from people like you.