How the government and medical community responds to the coronavirus crisis will be especially crucial for outcomes among black Americans. AP journalists teamed up to look at the barrier of mistrust in some black communities that goes back decades.

As New York, Chicago, New Orleans and other cities with large black populations began to emerge as hot spots for COVID-19, reporters Aaron Morrison and Jay Reeves thought it would be relevant to examine how black Americans have historically mistrusted the medical field.

For the New York-based Morrison, the idea came from conversations with family members. He says some were repeating wrong information and he wondered if it stemmed from black people’s historical mistrust of the medical community and government.

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A black man included in a now-discredited syphilis study has blood drawn by a doctor in Tuskegee, Ala., in a 1950s photo released by the National Archives. A history of failures in government response to disasters and emergencies, medical abuse, neglect and exploitation have given generations of black people a distrust of public institutions, sometimes referred to as the “Tuskegee effect.”

National Archives via AP

Reeves, who is based in Birmingham, Alabama, was separately pondering the topic based on his experiences writing about the continuing aftermath of the “Tuskegee Study.” Launched in 1932 by the U.S. Public Health Service, it involved roughly 600 poor black men in Alabama who were left untreated for syphilis so researchers could track the disease’s progress. The secret program was exposed by AP in 1972 and ended, but its effects linger years later.

Morrison and Reeves, both covering inequality as members of the Race and Ethnicity team, combined their mutual interest. Reeves reached out to his Tuskegee contacts and interviewed a former mayor who acknowledged many residents still don’t trust government health information.

Morrison found the skepticism wasn’t just in Alabama – it was in New York City, too. A gym trainer he interviewed, Rahmell Peebles, said he is skeptical of what he hears from government and initially didn’t see the need for alarm over the virus. “I felt it was a complete hoax,” Peebles said.

When it came time to shoot images of Peebles, New York-based photographer Bebeto Matthews, also a member of the Race and Ethnicity team, says he looked for surroundings “that could help represent and reinforce a sense of tension to make the photos.” One of the shots shows a maskless Peebles standing in his Brooklyn neighborhood and a person whose face is covered with a mask walking behind him. Another shows Peebles walking across a shadow-filled street with a subway overpass above him.

As the nation wrestled with the disproportionately high rate of coronavirus infection in the black community, the story set the AP apart and helped explain why some of the hot spot cities were facing outbreaks. The piece was used on more than 240 customer sites, earned heavy Facebook interaction and was the subject of at least 680 tweets. On AP News the story garnered more than 60,000 page views.

For a timely and distinctive exploration of black Americans’ mistrust of the medical field, Morrison, Reeves and Matthews win this week’s Best of the States award.

For AP’s complete coverage of the coronavirus: 

– Comprehensive all-formats coverage of the virus outbreak.

– Understanding the Outbreak: stories explaining the new coronavirus.

– One Good Thing: daily stories of hope and humanity amid the crisis.

– Ground Game: Inside the Outbreak: AP’s podcast series.