Community questions media’s opioid coverage

About 50 people gathered last week in a cozy community hall in Struthers. A simulated fire in the electronic fireplace gave off a warm glow, and sandwiches were on a long table.

With five people assigned to each round table, WKSU/National Public Radio reporter Tim Ruddell slid his usual amiable self into an empty chair. A broadcast veteran returning to a town where he once served as a news director, he was among journalists from three other news outlets sponsoring the event.

The first question for everyone: Describe the opioid crisis in your community.

The room grew quiet, then there were muffled tones. In the Mahoning Valley, more than 700 have died of opioid overdoses since 2010. In Ohio, more than 16,000.

Ruddell’s face changed markedly. His smile melted away.

The first woman introduced herself as the mother of a child who had died of an overdose. The second said the same. And the third. The fourth person was recovering from heroin addiction, terrified of the same fate.

Often, Ruddell explained afterward, reporters talk to experts who are detached from the emotion of an issue.

“Clearly, the very idea of this,” he said, “was too tragic to take a detached view. These people weren’t here to explain from a professional perspective, these were three women who lost their kid.”

Ruddell wasn’t the only journalist to feel thrust into painful life experiences. Over the course of three nights, 18 journalists, including those from the Tribune Chronicle, were moved by stories of heartbreak, courage and hope as about 100 people gathered over three nights.

The meetings occurred in Warren, Youngstown and Struthers, and each was unique. Each time, participants were energized to do something, and they asked the news outlets sponsoring the events: What’s next? Over the next several weeks, those journalists from the Tribune Chronicle, WKSU, the Youngstown Vindicator and WFMJ-TV will split up the work, beginning with the scores of questions written on blue note cards by those who attended. One question was this:

Q. What will media do with the information collected? What is YOUR next step?

A. All the notes have been transcribed and will be shared with the public. We’ll produce stories based on those notes. Our goals is to energize action as part of a larger Your Voice Ohio, an organization of news outlets sharing what they learn about community efforts to curb the crisis. Here are the rest of the questions we received last week. Some have been answered, others will be answered over time.

Q. Where can families and individuals struggling with addiction turn, day or night, to get immediate help?

A. Mahoning and Trumbull counties have information sheets on the web that contain web sites and phone numbers to call for help. As a start, you can call 211 in either county.

Q. Why do media continue to run photos of needles, and needles in arms. Don’t you know that’s a trigger to someone trying to recover?

A. This shows why these meetings are important. That idea had not occurred to many of us as we attempt to reflect life in the community. We will now consider this concern in our daily news decisions and share with the statewide media group.

Q. What are good examples of policies and programs that are working in other communities?

A. The news outlets on Oct. 8 published a list of effective programs at work in other communities. That list will be updated as more become available.

Here are other questions we’ll answer over time.

What have media done in other communities that has been effective? What are lawmakers doing? What is marijuana’s role in addiction and the opioid epidemic? Suboxone, good or bad? How do we get more counselors who have personal experiences with addiction, know the pain of recovery? How do we get people with drug-related convictions back into the work force so that their recovery can be a success? Which schools have drug education, participate in key programs, such as Dare, Red Ribbon and January talk? What types of interdictions are courts and law enforcement doing to cut down or eliminate easy flow of drugs? Report that this is a chronic relapsing brain disease, not a moral failing. Change community attitude from its current lack of compassion.

Why do our Trumbull County sheriff, prosecutor and judges not want to look into treatment programs that are working in other parts of the country? Combine with this question: Why do our local news outlets not question local officials for not trying new ideas? Can the medical community become more involved? Can there be a law that private insurance pay for 30-day treatment like Pennsylvania?

Who is providing long-term recovery in the area? What steps will the community officials take to fix the problem of 24/7 assistance? What are we going to do to make changes and keep these forums? How do we get more community and business involved to help in the crisis? What is the plan to help families of those dependent on drugs? Why aren’t drug dealers prosecuted? Why is prosecuting drug dealers for OD deaths cost prohibitive? What are the costs of addiction vs prevention? Where are the stories of recovering addicts who are positively impacting the community?

Doug Oplinger is director and editor for the Your Voice Ohio statewide media project.