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Paper makes audacious decision to highlight silent epidemic

By Susannah Nesmith, CJR

Editor's Note:

This article first ran on Dec. 2, 2016 on the Columbia Journalism Review's website.

The Palm Beach Post made the bold decision to profile all 216 people who died of an opioid overdose in its coverage area last year, risking the wrath of victims’ families, some of whom were horrified to have their private pain publicized. The stark display of photos of each of the dead, accompanied by brief profiles, effectively served The Post’s goal—drawing attention to the magnitude of the crisis in a way statistics simply could not, while bringing addiction out of the shadows.

The “Generation Heroin” project, rolled out last month, was motivated by the reporters’ discovery that many people were overdosing inside controversial sober homes where they had gone to get better. When the reporters dug deeper, they realized the sheer scope of the problem was far worse than they had imagined: More people died in Palm Beach County from heroin, fentanyl, or illicit morphine overdoses in 2015 than in car accidents.

“We felt like we really wanted to make a major impact with this project,” says managing editor Nick Moschella. “We needed to go beyond what many outlets have done—and done well. We thought, how can we really wake up the state and the community to something that is killing a generation?”

The more standard story about the statistics behind the epidemic, with a few profiles of victims whose families agreed to participate to illustrate its toll, has been done before. The danger with those is its easy for readers to conclude that opioid addiction could never happen to a friend or loved one.

More and more local news outlets are waking up to the reality of the heroin epidemic in their backyards. Earlier this month, WXIA, the NBC affiliate in Atlanta, did an impressive five-part investigation into addiction in the city’s wealthy suburbs, for example. The stories are shocking; the lack of response frustrating. But The Post’s creative treatment of the problem is worth a look.

The Post reporters and editors—Pat Beall, Joe Capozzi, John Pacenti, Christine Stapleton, Lawrence Mower, Mike Stucka, Melanie Mena, and Joel Engelhardt—spent months gathering records on each case. Then Beall, Capozzi, Mower, and Engelhardt divided up the names and made the difficult calls to family members.

They started out dreading the reaction.

“I expected families to be very angry with me from the moment they picked up the phone,” Beall says. “We found this overwhelming support.”

In the end, family members of 98 of the victims supported the project, Engelhardt says. Another couple dozen were basically neutral. Ten asked The Post to pull their family members out of the project, with a few even threatening to sue. The Post was unable to reach family members of some 70 victims, but reconstructed their stories from police and autopsy reports.

The Post spent a good bit of time planning how to report the stories sensitively; reporters and Engelhardt, who is an editor, prepared a standard script before they started the calls. 

“We felt we had to get certain things across very carefully and clearly,” Beall says. “If we were leaving a message, we didn’t know who was going to hear it. We were telling them ‘it’s our intent to show these people as individuals and not statistics.’ We felt very deeply that we could be hurting people.”

They were not, however, calling for permission. The newspaper insisted on printing every name, and every photo it could find, even if family members opposed it.

The Palm Beach Post did not casually decide to publish the pictures and personal stories of every person in Palm Beach County who died after taking heroin, fentanyl or illicit morphine in 2015,” wrote Publisher Timothy D. Burke in a column explaining the decision. “Though most families of those who died and who spoke with The Post expressed gratitude for the decision, it will bring some others pain. But we believe that the staggering toll this epidemic is taking has been largely hidden from public view, and as a result has not been aggressively addressed.”

I spoke with Al Tompkins, a senior faculty member at the Poynter Institute. Tompkins has been teaching a series of seminars on how to cover the opioid addiction epidemic and he agrees with The Post’sexecution of the project.

“That’s a really wonderful project,” he says. “A large public interest, in my judgment, overwhelms a family’s request for privacy. We know we’re going to cause harm sometimes. The question is the potential good. I don’t know of any large social problem that has ever become better by not looking at it.”

Poynter’s Kelly McBride, the Institute’s ethics guru, wrote recently about the ethics of publishing photos of heroin addicts after a pair of photos released by police in Indiana and Ohio went viral because they showed passed out parents next to terrified children. McBride came up with a checklist of questions to ask when deciding whether to report  on pictures like those. If at least three were met, she deemed publication was ethical. One criteria was:

“Efforts to minimize harm. This would include cropping out or blurring faces of minors (there were no minor victims in Palm Beach County last year). It could also include not naming the adults or showing their faces. After all, the goal is to raise awareness, not shame people, right?”

But while the Post did name the victims, the paper also met several other criteria McBride laid out, including publishing an in-depth story looking at what other communities are doing to tackle opioid addiction, and what Palm Beach County and Florida could be doing.

In Huntington, (West Virginia) population 49,000, nearly every public official carries Narcan, the life-saving drug that reverses heroin overdoses. Police, firefighters, members of the mayor’s cabinet—even librarians carry it—and the health department gives it away to anyone willing to take a class. So when 27 people there overdosed in four hours in August, all but one were saved.

In Palm Beach County, a few police departments and fire departments use Narcan. But (Palm Beach County) Sheriff (Ric) Bradshaw has refused to let his deputies carry it, even when offered the medicine for free. He cited liability issues.

The failure goes beyond local officials in Palm Beach County. The story noted that Gov. Rick Scott dismantled the state’s Office of Drug Control in 2011, replacing it with a powerless advisory council, which has helpfully suggested that something needs to be done. On the other end of the spectrum, Massachusetts declared a public health emergency after seeing a 15 percent spike in overdose deaths in 2014. The same year, Florida saw ODs rise 111 percent, with no corresponding response. On the national level, Congress passed the first major addiction legislation in 40 years last year. The bill to pay for it failed 48 to 47; Florida’s Sen. Marco Rubio skipped the vote.

“I remember saying ‘they’re doing so much and we’re doing so little by comparison,’” Beall says. “Joel said ‘They know them.’ That’s why we had to show their faces. So people here can know them like the people in West Virginia know them.”

In addition to looking for solutions for the community, The Post offeredsolutions for families and a story in which experts explain addiction. The newspaper also ran a story  attacking the stereotype of a junkie by pointing to the normal and sometimes even successful lives of many of the victims.

But the heart of the project is the collection of profiles.

The stories are heartbreaking and sometimes chilling, like the one about the addict who admitted to The Post that when a friend overdosed, he decided to use the rest of the friend’s heroin first, then call 911. The friend died. The youngest victim was 19, the oldest 65. Eighty percent were men and 95 percent were white.

Some family members weren’t ready to talk about their loved ones, but sent the Post moving written responses.

The Post team realized early on that doing all those interviews caused its own form of trauma. “It’s really important for reporters to understand that trauma is contagious,” Beall says. “My job description included crying every day.”

Capozzi said decades in journalism hadn’t prepared him for the emotional toll of the months of interviews with grieving family members.

“In the course of my career, there’s always a case when somebody dies and you know, you call the next of kin,” he says. “We were doing that five times a day, coming in on Saturdays to do it because we realized that was a better time to reach people. And for these families, it was like ripping open a scab again. They had already begun to process the death. There were a lot of tears, by me and the families.”

Capozzi traveled to South Carolina to meet with one of the first families he reached, producing a moving prequel to the project, a 180-inch story—about a mother’s failed effort to save her son—that ran in September.

That families’ story reflected one factor common to so many of the stories—the victim was from out of state and came to Palm Beach County to get help. Palm Beach County has become a hub of rehab facilities and sober homes. “They’re coming down here trying to get help, but they are coming down here to die,” Capozzi says.

The Post journalists I talked to say they have been encouraged by the reaction to the project, especially from overwhelmed medical examiners and the police and firefighters who often feel helpless in the face of the epidemic. The Sheriff’s Office in Martin County, just north of Palm Beach, urged its Facebook followers to read the package, calling it “incredible” and “sad, shocking and eye opening.”

Shortly after the project came out, a Palm Beach County commissionerpledged to push for reforms to slow the epidemic. The daughter of her chief aide fatally overdosed the week before.

The Post is hoping for a more robust reaction in the weeks and months ahead. “It’s still early in the game,” Capozzi said.

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