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Going beyond stereotypes to report on substance abuse and addiction

By Jennifer Lu

When writing about a topic as pervasive and complex as heroin addiction, the last thing you want to do is to get it wrong.

At the 2016 CAR Conference, Stephen Stirling and Jacquee Petchel, who have reported extensively on this subject, shared their experiences and advice on reporting, quantifying and telling the story of one of America’s fastest growing addictions through data and crowdsourcing.

Their panel,”Addicted: Revealing hidden communities,” included tips for how to accurately depict the heroin epidemic in a way that engages readers and reflects their local communities and states.

Stirling, a data reporter at the Star-Ledger/, told us how he got the idea to represent New Jersey’s heroin problem as a fictional town populated entirely by heroin addicts.

He set up a Google survey asking for personal stories and was overwhelmed by the response. These became the basis for the interactive piece of reader stories.

Petchel, executive editor of the Carnegie-Knight News21 multimedia investigative reporting initiative and a professor at Arizona State Universityused the Public Insight Network to hear from listeners and sent student reporters to rehabilitation facilities to find sources for their documentary.

Both reporters stressed the importance of avoiding stereotypes. Here’s Stirling:

In fact, it was not uncommon for Petchel’s young reporters to know someone who was struggling with heroin addiction.

While Stirling and Petchel used statistics to quantify the heroin epidemic in their communities, Stirling reminded attendees that every piece of data represents someone’s life, and ultimately, those stories are what readers connect with.

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