Bulletin photo by Kareya Saleh

The panelists for the discussion of the opioid epidemic, from left: Jeremy Rodorigo, community relations and business development executive with American Medical Response; Dorrie Carolan, founder and president of the Newtown (Conn.) Parent Connection; Joe Markman, associate director of the division of public communications at the Massachusetts Nurses Association; moderator John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown (Conn.) Bee.

The opioid epidemic:
‘Every family member
has a story to tell’

By Abby Skelton
Bulletin Staff

The opioid epidemic has been brought to the forefront of health-related reporting recently.

Although reporting might not be enough to solve the problem, panelists at the New England Newspaper and Press Association’s winter convention made an effort through their presentation to improve the scope, accuracy and accessibility of coverage of the topic.

From disrupting holidays to the stigma faced by siblings to mental and emotional strains, an addict’s choices seem to have a ripple effect, according to Dorrie Carolan, founder and president of the Newtown (Conn.) Parent Connection, a support group for parents affected by the epidemic.

“Every family member has a story to tell … from which we can learn,” Carolan said.

At the talk, attended by about 30 people, Carolan joined two other panelists and a moderator to discuss ways that the news media can help stop the epidemic by reporting on affected families and showing the emotion, devastation and crises that addiction causes. The session, held Saturday, Feb. 20, was called “Developing new and relevant reporting on the opioid epidemic.”

Each of the panelists shared personal experiences they had with loved ones suffering from addiction. When asked, about half of those in attendance had similarly struggled with an addict in their lives.

The panelists brought different viewpoints to the discussion, but there was a common theme among them: the need to change the way journalists are speaking of, learning about, and reporting on opioid addiction.

The moderator of the panel was John Voket, associate editor of The Newtown Bee. Newtown has been marred in recent years by the heroin epidemic, Voket said. In 2012, Newtown also was prominent in the news after a shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School that left 20 elementary school students and six staff members dead.

Since 2006, Voket, who has suffered losses among family and friends to opioid addictions in the past few years, has written about the epidemic and its effects on Newtown. The pain of losing a family member or friend to addiction never fully goes away, he said.

“(As journalists) you all have a knack at, or have been trained to, get people to talk. Go to the families, ask for their stories,” Voket said in response to an audience member’s question about the proper time and way to approach a suffering family. He suggested waiting until the initial shock passes and then approaching the family for an interview on background if they are not ready to go on the record. He also encouraged leniency with typical practices for identifying those in the story, suggesting that reporters could use only a first name in their pieces.

“Be careful about how reporting affects the siblings and other family members,” he said.

With tears in her eyes, Carolan said: “Bring us the emotion. An addict has an immense toll on the family … people need to read about that.”

Those are the difficult stories, she said.

As with any tragedy, there are emotional wounds; in the case of opioid addiction, the wounds are left by the addict’s actions while using, failed attempts at rehabilitation, death, or a combination of factors.

Carolan agreed with Voket’s suggestion to wait until some healing has occurred to contact families about such stories.

“Wait until they’ve moved on with their (lives); that’s when you will get the stories.” Carolan said.

Panelist Jeremy Rodorigo is a community relations and business development executive with American Medical Response, a Greenwood, Colo.-based medical transportation company with offices in Connecticut. Rodorigo discussed the epidemic from the standpoint of a first responder.

Rodorigo, who has firsthand experience in treating opioid overdoses, discussed the use of the life-saving drug Narcan or Naloxone, and discussed how many addicts obtain opioids legally. Rodorigo explained that Narcan is an opioid antagonist, and in most cases reverses the effects of a narcotic overdose.

Panelist Joe Markman, associate director of the division of public communications at the Massachusetts Nurses Association, talked about his personal experience in reporting on opioid addiction. Markman has written many opioid stories for The Enterprise of Brockton, Mass. His stories focused heavily on the lack of data and inaccessibility of information that, if available, could significantly help improve coverage, and in turn help to fight the epidemic. Markman showed the stark contrast between the data collection and public communication of the Rhode Island Department of Public Health and its Massachusetts counterpart.

“It is sporadic, difficult to export and analyze,” Markman said of Massachusetts’ public data on opioids.

Markman said the Massachusetts Department of Public Health’s program to monitor the prescribing of opioids was ineffective, not comprehensive, and largely useless.

“We have seen an improvement in the way that Massachusetts collects its data (recently),” Markman said. “We can now see (opioid deaths) by demographic and location,” as specific as city and county.

There is still room for improvement, however, Markman said.

While better access to data is an important element in improving opioid coverage, journalists should not report just on the data, but rather collect anecdotes and report on the emotional and psychological impact opioid addiction has in tandem with statistics, the panelists said.

Sarah Schwarz, an undergraduate student in the Northeastern University School of Journalism and a Bulletin correspondent, contributed to this report.


POSTED 3/22/16


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