Fighting the heroin crisis together

Local journalists join forces to battle epidemic

WARREN — Three local reporters — the Tribune Chronicle’s Renee Fox and others from the Mahoning Valley, Jordyn Grzelewski and Lindsay McCoy — have worked aggressively in recent years exposing the death and destruction wrought by the heroin crisis, yet despite their dire warnings in newspapers, on the web and on television, the situation here has worsened dramatically.

In Trumbull County, opioid deaths grew at a rate far faster than the state from 2013 to 2015, and Trumbull now is the seventh-worst county in one of the four worst states in the country. Mahoning is only slightly better.

Lest you think the more than 700 deaths — yes, 700 — in the two counties since 2010 are not your concern, consider: More than a dozen of those were truck drivers. At least 19 prepared food for public consumption. More than 20 were in the health care industry working as nurses, pharmacists, health aides and drawing blood.

There were police, security guards and more than a dozen who assembled automobiles. For every user who died there may be scores of users still working those jobs.

Opioids include prescription pain killers, heroin and fentanyl.

Worried yet? Wonder what can be done?

The three reporters from the Tribune Chronicle, The Vindicator in Youngstown and WFMJ-TV view themselves as part of the community and want to be part of the effort to turn the opioid crisis around.

Their editors and news directors share the concern.

In an effort unique to U.S. journalism, the Tribune Chronicle, Vindicator and WFMJ are setting aside their competitive instincts on this issue to launch a community conversation aimed at solutions. Those sessions will occur Oct. 22-24 in Struthers and target neighborhoods in Warren and Youngstown — selected because maps of deaths show they have been deeply affected.

Covering the media collaboration as well as assisting in the coverage will be reporter Tim Ruddell at WKSU National Public Radio at Kent State University.

COMMUNITY GATHERINGS

The community sessions start with the assumption that public policy decisions and adequate funding from the state and national levels aren’t going to happen soon. There must be a community vision with more citizens taking responsibility. People will be asked whether opioids have affected their lives and how. They’ll be asked how the valley would look if it were successfully turning the crisis around and what must be done to do so.

The Mahoning Valley media initiative is part of a larger Your Voice Ohio / Ohio Media Project. What is learned in the Mahoning Valley will be transferred to other communities around the state –Dayton, Middletown, Akron-Canton among them. The funding and organizational leadership comes from the Jefferson Center, a non-partisan public engagement organization in St. Paul, Minn.

The Jefferson Center has secured $250,000 in support from the Democracy Fund and $75,000 from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation for Your Voice Ohio and a companion project in Appalachian Southeast Ohio, led by Journalism That Matters.

Andrew Rockway, the Jefferson Center’s program director, is leading the initiative in Ohio. “To address the opioid epidemic, we need to better understand it. We can only do that if we’re listening to community members, engaging community members and providing communities with the information they need to take productive action,” he said.

There are several leadership groups watching the media effort to determine how best to aid the attack on opioids. Among them are the local judicial system, the Youngstown City Club, the Ohio Civility Consortium and the National Institute for Civil Discourse, a national nonpartisan organization that has identified Ohio as a state ripe for constructive citizen action.

“This is the type of forward-thinking and collaborative approach that Revive Civility Ohio encourages,” said Lauren Litton, coordinator of the program, sponsored by NICD. “People with diverse perspectives must find ways to collectively explore solutions to pervasive issues, like the opioid epidemic, that are eroding our communities.”

Planning this project already has required a change among media partners. The three reporters and Tribune Chronicle Editor Brenda J. Linert, WFMJ-TV news director Mona Alexander and Vindicator Editors Todd Franko and Mark Sweetwood have winced on occasion as they’ve thought about setting aside their desire to have better stories than their competitors. For this project, however, they’re willing to share each other’s work.

They see this as a life-or-death situation too important to let their own competitive spirits get in the way.

“The opioid epidemic has reached far into our community, leaving virtually no one untouched,” Linert said. “The level of this crisis demands new ways of thinking among everyone in our communities — including the media. That’s why the Tribune Chronicle and other local media organizations have agreed to come together to share information, to educate the public and hopefully to help find a solution.”

To help the journalists find solutions, we want your help as well. We want to collect your ideas. Email your thoughts on root causes of the crisis and your suggested solutions to doplinger@yourvoiceohio.org or to Tribune Chronicle reporter Renee Fox at rfox@tribtoday.com.

Doug Oplinger is part of Your Voice Mahoning Valley / Ohio Media Project.

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