As the problem of heroin abuse and overdoses in America has gotten worse, publications have searched for ways to expose it for what it is: an epidemic.
More often than not, this story has been told in a way that ends up making heroin-related overdoses come off as isolated incidents, as Susannah Nesmith of the Columbia Journalism Review noted.
“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 it’s easy for readers to conclude that opioid addiction could never happen to a friend or loved one,” she wrote.
A recent and comprehensive counter to this problem was conducted by the Palm Beach Post, which, through its “Generation Heroin” project, profiled each person who died in 2015 from a heroin-related overdose in Palm Beach County.
The number of people who died that year was 216.
The Post, while it included relevant statistics in its story on age groups, gender, race and drug use, made the editorial decision to go further. It did this by attaching names, faces and profiles to those who succumbed to opiates.
It’s an investigation that might seem controversial given the potential hurt to already wounded families, but, as managing editor Nick Moschella put it, “We thought, how can we really wake up the state and the community to something that is killing a generation?”
The fact is there were more people who died in Palm Beach County from heroin-related substances than people who died in car accidents in 2015.
What The Post found was the family members of 98 people who died agreed to participate in the project. For the stories of around 70 other victims whose family members could not be reached, they used police and autopsy reports.
Others were neutral or against their families getting involved in the project. In all cases, the families were approached with sensitivity.
The end result was not a story that gives a sense of an isolated tragedy but something that exhibits the far-reaching effects and range of an epidemic on real people — something that is in the public’s best interest to know, understand and take seriously.
In August, Rare released its own series on the heroin epidemic in America, speaking to the families devastated by loss, law enforcement on the ground, and public officials.
Over the course of that series, we spoke with mothers who lost their sons to heroin addiction in an effort to illustrate the lasting effects of heroin addiction and abuse, as well as the need to raise awareness of the problem.
Amanda Jordan spoke about her son Christopher Honor, who died from a heroin overdose on Sept. 5, 2015, two days after he was released from jail.
She recalled the day she picked up her son from jail and how quickly things all fell apart.
“I picked him up, he was doing good,” she said. “We went to breakfast, he applied for a job, happy as could be. We were going to go to the Patriots game [later that night].”
Instead of going to the game, her son ended up drinking during the day and using heroin that night.
On Sept. 5, Jordan got a knock on the door.
“‘Do you have a son, Chris?’” a police officer asked. “‘Well, he’s gone.’”
“And I said, what do you mean, he’s gone? She’s like, ‘He’s dead. He died,’” Jordan replied. “And at that minute I died, I just fell to the ground.”
Christopher Honor was 22.
Jordan spoke to Rare nearly eight months after her son’s death, saying that she feels drug addiction is a tough subject for people to talk about.
“I feel like a lot of people, they do turn their backs on the heroin addict because it’s such a stigma,” she said.
Crystal Bissonnette, who spoke to us while her son Ryan was jailed because of his heroin use, expressed a similar concern.
“There seems to be blame going all over the place,” she said. “The hardest part for me […] was just being able to freely admit [that my son was addicted to heroin].”
The first step to addressing any problem is acknowledging that there is one. But in the words of one of The Palm Beach Post reporters on this investigation, it was the focus of the reporters and editors to emphasize to grieving families that the story needed to focus on damage to numerous real people as people rather than people as statistics.
“We felt we had to get certain things across very carefully and clearly,” Pat Beall told Columbia Journalism Review. “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.”
Palm Beach Post Publisher Timothy D. Burke expressed in a column the need to attach names, faces and profiles to his paper’s story on heroin-related deaths, not to hurt families further but to shine a light on what he views as an epidemic.
“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,” he wrote.
For your reference, here were some of the Palm Beach Post’s statistical findings:
Of all those who died, 95% were white.
Nearly eight in 10 were men.
More than half were 35 and younger.
40% were 30 and younger.
The youngest to die was 19; the oldest was 65; the median age was 33.
Most took the fatal overdose in their homes, but 1 in 10 fatally overdosed in a sober home. 20% died in a public place, including motels.
Autopsies of 42% revealed the presence of fentanyl, a drug 50 times more powerful than heroin.
More than 80% had three or more drugs in their system; nearly half had five or more drugs.
In five of the final six months of the year, the monthly death toll exceeded 20.