Changing How We Report the Heroin Epidemic

MOD BEHRENS

The articles are becoming more and more frequent. They’ve been popping up weekly across publications from Northern Maine to Western Ohio, particularly over the past five years: Heroin in New England, More Abundant and Deadly,” in 2013; “Drugs, Death, and Despair in New England” in 2016; and just last month, the widely acclaimed piece, “Seven Days of Heroin”. The growing prevalence of the opioid crisis is impossible to ignore, and it’s getting worse with a stronger influx of dangerous substances like fentanyl and differing ideas from law enforcement and government officials on how to mitigate the rising crisis. But as I’ve been following the journalism intended to raise awareness and shine a light on the communities affected, I feel less like I’m being informed, and more like I’m reading slightly different reports of the same palatable yet titillating story over and over.

These in-depth pieces all have the same characteristics, highlighting martyrdom and hopeful endings, good samaritans and helpless support characters ensnared within the epidemic. The narratives rely on tired tropes such as the helpless, hopeless, or grateful addict—or, lazy caricatures, that don’t read like actual people. A reporter describes a woman who’s been an addict for years, and spends two sentences describing how thin she is and the sores on her body before she scurries away from the interview to find a dealer. A family welcomes home the son they thought they lost to addiction, but who has finally come home from rehab. His mother tells her version of his story through happy tears. But many opioid users are indiscernible on the street, just like many don’t have families with the means to support them through recovery—which are often times extremely expensive. So why are the same stories being told ad nauseam?

The writing aims to strike the right balance of fear and pity, giving enough relatability to imply merit, but enough shock value to allow one to distance themselves.

My introduction to the opioid crisis undoubtedly started in Brattleboro, VT, and it didn’t look like anything portrayed in the articles I had seen being shared across Facebook and in the local paper. It didn’t look much different from my life, something which remained true from when I was a seventeen year-old in Southern Vermont looking for people to “hey mister” for cigarettes to when I turned twenty in Northampton while coping with a different addiction of my own. The people I knew who were using heroin were my friends, and while I met a few people who fit the common journalistic narrative—via existing within a larger drug culture—most did not.

My former classmate who died of an overdose in 2015 was from one of the richest towns in the country, and until her death, I hadn’t even known she was an addict. A friend attended rehab for heroin addiction in 2016, and the last time I saw him was within two weeks of his program completion. He was, for all I could tell, the same kid I remembered from before he’d ever touched dope. Another friend was openly using heroin when we were close, but none of us really knew how much or when, because most of the time we saw him, he seemed as present as the rest of us. And one friend casually mentioned that she’d tried heroin “a couple times” because it helped her get to sleep. When I moved back to Western Massachusetts after leaving college, the stories were similar, and I was hearing them more and more often.

Confiding about my own habits to a coworker at one of my first jobs, she casually told me how the thing she missed most about heroin was watching her blood shoot up into the syringe and mix with the drug. She looked incredibly healthy. She had been clean for less than a year and confessed that she preferred drugs cut with fentanyl because it made the high stronger. Other friends had tried everything but heroin and picked it up simply because they wanted to check it off their list. These were all people who, at least to some extent, maintained a relatively normal public life; and there are articles which touch on this, when commenting on the variation in crowds attending needle exchange programs: “Skinny young men. Middle-aged women in yoga pants. A guy in a lawn care truck,” the Cincinnati Inquirer reported. But it’s always limited to a few sentences at most—blips in the blockbuster pieces that focus on “ruined lives” and yellowing skin on skeletal bodies.

I decided to look at recent articles focused on Northampton-area specifically to see how local news compared in terms of coverage. I knew that 2016 had marked a particularly noticeable uprise in local overdoses. A man was evicted from my friend’s building in early 2017 for selling heroin from his apartment, the same day she watched a man on Main Street fall to the ground, mouth foaming as an ambulance pulled up, and a woman on the street told her about the three other overdoses that had occurred in town that morning.

In January, the Daily Hampshire Gazette published an article titled “The Opioid Crisis: a firsthand look at heroin’s destruction”, that focused on two women who had received treatment at the Wright Home for Women in Easthampton. It begins by describing the two as mothers who had grown up here, immediately before jumping into their histories with various other drugs, crime, and homelessness. The initial descriptors invoke empathy—these women started out the same as any hypothetical person, before their habits turned them into what the next adjectives imply: your typical heroin addicts. Nearly every article I’ve read uses a mix of these two extremes when describing their interview subjects. In another Northampton-focused article from The Boston Globe, the order is switched. A veteran is noted to have failed drug tests twice in his first fifteen months of his program, before a number of paragraphs later when he shares his message of hope. The point of this is both to confirm the reader’s bias and to comfort them. It’s either they were once just like you or now that they’re in recovery, they’re like anyone else, but when they were using, they were such a mess that you would have been able to immediately tell they were an addict. The shock value that comes with painting all addicts as wrecked people with no control over their lives serves a purpose. It both reassures the reader that they would be able to tell if someone close to them had a problem, and often gives easy answers for what led to the addiction.

Take this quote from a Gazette article, where one woman—having her own prior history of cocaine and alcohol abuse—is described as being pushed into her addiction after the trauma of her brother’s death. This story charts a typical narrative; to invoke sympathy, the reporter begins with a sappy promise that their subject isn’t a lost cause, only misguided.

They love their children. They have family members who love them dearly.

And both have lived on the streets and been in trouble with the law so often that police know them well. They’ve watched other people take care of their children when they could not. Each has had family members, close friends and acquaintances die of opioid overdoses.

Local heroin reporting aims to strike the right balance of fear and pity, giving enough relatability to imply merit, but enough shock value to allow one to distance themselves. The goal of this, of course, is to encourage reader awareness so that change can hypothetically be made, while also simplifying the issue and detaching it from larger ones that affect those in seemingly stable environments.

What the same Gazette piece doesn’t grapple with, however, is that her opioid use began with doctor-prescribed medication, something that has been proven to be a primary cause in the epidemic. Yet, in this article, like others, it is brushed over and mentioned only tangentially. This information is often hidden in plain sight, an overlooked fact but never the crux of the story. Because, for journalists, it can be much easier to indict individuals and their personal (moral) failings than an amoral system.

The focus on extremes made us feel okay about our habits because these stories didn’t reflect us. We were casual users, paying our rent and attending school. We’d done it, and we were fine. We weren’t like those other people.

The issue is not relegated to specific underprivileged groups or survivors of certain trauma. For example, over-prescription in the medical field, spurred by capitalist endeavors to make market drugs appear safer than they really were, has affected largely wealthy white communities. Shining light on this begins a journey down a rabbithole which challenges trust in doctors and priorities of those entrusted with aiding us, and more importantly, shows that this could affect anyone. Most publications simply aren’t ready to take on that story, instead finding smaller symptoms and letting them take the blame. Yes, this could happen to anyone, but you’ll be safe if your children have a happy life and stay away from those parts of town and bad crowds. In the Globe’s article, for instance, the spotlight is focused on a program for male veterans, yet little attention is given to the large percentage of veterans with PTSD, which statistically is incredibly common prior to addiction. But that requires a greater story about the lack of adequate care for returning soldiers and our country’s obsession with foreign conflict that drives particularly low-income Americans into war zones without preparation for the resulting trauma.

And what about people like me, and like my friends? Kids who either had their own traumas or didn’t, but appeared healthy enough to fly under the radar. Like the intended audiences of these reports, we did not relate to the deteriorating bodies described, and that made us less afraid. None of these articles focus on the intermediate period. They don’t talk about the time during which their subjects had only just started using, and had not yet become an expected caricature. Yet, so many addicts start that way, and at least twenty percent of overdoses occur in first-time users who are possibly ignorant of the risks and lacking relatable information. The focus on extremes made us feel okay about our habits because these stories didn’t reflect us. We were casual users, paying our rent and attending school. There was nothing there to suggest what was ahead, because the stories were never about the beginning. And with what seemed like drastic scare tactics in reporting the worst of the worst, it became no more intimidating than the absurd dramatic PSAs about acid or mushrooms. We’d done it, and we were fine. We weren’t like those other people.

And what about those other people? What about the ones who didn’t make it, or weren’t willing or able to go to rehab, or who didn’t talk to reporters for fear of being painted as a pitiful monster? Why is it constantly necessary to prove the worth of one’s interviewees by adding caveats about their good deeds—or if those details aren’t easily available or the subject is still using, their loving family who is hurt by proxy. The media perpetuates the idea that only the pure of heart or the loved are worth saving, and as they encourage that perspective, the public regurgitates it back. Why do we hear so little about heroin abuse in prisons, or communities which aren’t as white? And how can we claim that the current method of repetitive coverage is making a difference on a wide scale? As overdoses and fatalities continue to rise, clearly it isn’t.

Most importantly, these articles begin to read more like a modern day freak show announcement than a helpful guide to change. Despite newer local laws regarding Narcan that make it more affordable to the public, and easily accessible needle exchanges and bystander training at places like Tapestry Health, these resources end up in their own smaller articles, and rarely make the front page, as opposed to these elaborate character studies to “put a face on the epidemic.” The face of the epidemic has been shown the same way time and time again, and things are not getting better beyond giving the privileged public something to gawk at. Very few are going to see these articles and do further research—or anything about the crisis.

Another part of the problem is a dissociation from the reporters themselves. Many are entering unfamiliar spaces, with little personal connection with which to understand the nuances of what’s being reported on. This is a subject in which subjectivity can add great depth. If a reporter has only seen what the rest of the privileged public has, via similar reports, how will they know to dig deeper? Are these reporters too afraid to dig into larger societal influences? Why is the actual relevant information so surprisingly difficult to track down? And why, despite consistent promises to shine light on this epidemic, are we routinely shining it in the same places?

For change to happen, we need local and national media that prioritizes reporting not on a specific few who are affected, but on what is being done to help and what resources are being created or where they are needed. We need the information on the front page to tell us as citizens that we can make a difference, and how, not just that a difference must be made. We need reporters who explain that this has spread so widely because the causes are so varied and therefore it infiltrates all kinds of people and communities. It doesn’t always look the same and it isn’t always recognizable. The only way to stop it is addressing it at its roots: providing better resources for addicts, better access to healthcare for all, and of course, being active about destigmatization to encourage people to seek help, and explain that the need for help doesn’t always look like rock bottom. Right now, reporters are scratching the surface. They need to tell the story.


Mod Behrens dropped out of college to write about music and social inequity. A former DIY booker, current roadkill chef and self-proclaimed astrological expert, he lives in Northampton and tweets at @walmartromeo.