10 Press Exposés That Made a Difference

Uncovering a Cruel Government Medical Experiment (1972)
Ninety-four-year-old Herman Shaw (R) speaks as U.S. President Bill Clinton looks on during White House ceremonies in 1997, where Clinton apologized to the survivors and families of the Tuskegee Syphilis Study. Shaw was one of the study's subjects. PAUL J. RICHARDS / AFP/Getty Images

In the 1930s, 600 African-American men — mostly poor and illiterate Alabama sharecroppers — were offered a chance to participate in a U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) research program for people with "bad blood." They would receive benefits that most poor people in those days could scarcely dream of — rides to the clinic, free medical checkups and a promise of stipends to their survivors.

What USPHS didn't tell the men was that 399 of them had syphilis, a fatal infectious disease, and that it actually wanted to study how it progressed without treatment. The government kept up the Tuskegee study, as it was called, for decades, even after penicillin emerged as a cure in 1947 [source: Tuskegee.edu].

Finally, a young government researcher in San Francisco, Peter Buxtun, learned of the secret experiment and tipped off a friend who worked for the Associated Press. She, in turn, passed the information along to Jean Heller in the AP's Washington bureau. Heller started researching, and in July 1972, exposed the study's existence and true purpose in a story that ran on the front page of the Washington Star [source: Jones).

The revelation eventually forced the government to pay $10 million to compensate the patients and their survivors, and Congress held hearings on how to better protect experimental subjects [source: Isenberg].