Investigative Journalism in the Year of Dying Narcotically

Investigative Journalism in the Year of Dying Narcotically

East Liverpool, Ohio, police posted photos on Facebook on September 8 of a 4-year-old boy in the back seat of a vehicle with two overdosed adults in front. The face of the boy (above) was obscured by RealClearInvestigations.

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This year reminded us that a picture can be worth a thousand words -- if not 100,000. There was the heartbreaking picture of the Syrian boy, covered in blood and dust, and alone, waiting for care — a poignant evocation of war’s toll of innocents.

In the United States, another picture encapsulated a different struggle: the scourge of opioid and heroin addiction. It also featured an innocent: a 4-year-old boy in a car seat, staring at the camera, with two overdosed grownups in the front of the vehicle, looking gone to our world (actually, they survived). It was posted on Facebook by police in Ohio as an anti-addiction statement.

But in the case of the opioid story at least, images got a run for their money from words in 2016. Investigative journalists across the nation rose to the challenge of exploring the complex factors propelling the crisis, often working with talented photographers and designers.

There was a paradox in this. At the same time political journalists were seen as out of touch with white working-class Americans who helped elect Donald Trump, other journalists were covering the life-or-death addiction struggles besetting their communities with sensitivity and nuance.

Since the turn of the 21st century, sales of – and deaths from – prescription painkillers have more than quadrupled, and heroin use in the United States hit a 20-year high this year. This is both a reflection of the diminished circumstances of middle-aged, working-class white Americans and an important reason their mortality rate has been rising.

The epidemic - which hasn't ensnared only whites, of course - is so broad, destructive and deep that few news outlets have ignored it:

  •  The Washington Post produced a series, “Unnatural Causes,” examining, among other things, how drugs, alcohol and other factors are behind the rising death rates for whites in midlife, particularly women. 
  • The Associated Press and the Center for Public Integrity collaborated on a two-part series analyzing “how opioid makers rely on a 50-state strategy that includes hundreds of lobbyists and millions of dollars in campaign contributions to help kill or weaken measures aimed at stemming the tide of prescription opioids.”
  • The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette reported on how “hundreds of doctors throughout seven narcotic-plagued states wantonly prescribed painkillers, setting the stage for the worst drug epidemic in U.S. history.” 
  • The Los Angeles Times has combed through thousands of confidential documents from the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, to explain how and why the drug can be so addictive
  • Both the Wall Street Journal and STAT News focused on the relatively recent rise of fentanyl, a super-potent synthetic opioid that can be legally prescribed but also easily and cheaply produced in China and Mexico for trafficking to the United States. It’s another reason death rates are rising.

The list of worthy efforts goes on, including global approaches. Many smaller outlets have documented the local effects of the problem, from New Hampshire Public Radio to the Palm Beach Post to the Charleston (W.Va.) Gazette-Mail.

I can’t get out of my head a single local statistic from the Charleston newspaper: One rural West Virginia pharmacy alone got nearly 9 million hydrocodone pills to distribute over two years. Nearly nine million opioid pills, to one drugstore.

Of course, some reporters were on the story before 2016. And given journalism’s fixation on the here and now, news outlets this year commonly gave short shrift to the deeper roots of the crisis -- the sort of perspective offered, for example, by Sam Quinones, an ex-Los Angeles Times reporter, in his 2015 book “Dreamland: The True Tale of America’s Opiate Epidemic.”

He dated the origins of the modern opioid crisis back to 1979. That was when infamously misleading addiction research – named Porter and Jick for its authors -- began to be embraced as a rationale to relax restrictive attitudes toward pain management.

The newly permissive approach set the stage for the much more commonly noted introduction of OxyContin in 1996 and other,  heavily promoted prescription painkillers. That was followed by a backlash of tighter restrictions on prescribers, followed in turn by abusers’ shift to easier-to-get heroin, and now fentanyl.

The shifts in attitude over the years raise another question generally neglected by the coverage: Will media-generated alarm about the opioid crisis, however justified, swing the pendulum back toward restrictions resulting in needless suffering for patients in genuine pain?

After all, America is graying as never before, with a growing number of aches and agonies. Its epic struggle with opioids, sparing neither old nor young, will not end soon.

Tom Kuntz is the editor of RealClearInvestigations.

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