Part II — Heroin Is A Headline Word

Veteran reporter Katharine Seelye on combating reader (and writer) apathy

via The New York Times

In January 2014, Peter Shumlin, then the Governor of Vermont, devoted his State of the State address to what he called “a full-blown heroin crisis.” Shumlin urged his audience to reframe the conversation around heroin addiction, citing the economic impact of incarceration; an addict incarcerated for a week cost the state nearly 10 times as much as a week of treatment in a state-financed recovery center. Katharine Seelye, the New York Times New England bureau chief, covered that agenda-setting speech, which garnered national attention.

“That got a lot of people interested,” Seelye said. As a presidential candidate, Hillary Clinton said that Shumlin’s State of the State alerted her to the epidemic, which has an impact across the country. Clinton’s recognition of the crisis was promptly followed by similar conversations during the Republican primary race. “I think that might have really put it on the map, when the candidates were talking about it,” said Seelye.

via the Portland Press Herald

Seelye doesn’t cover heroin, drugs, nor health exclusively, but she was aware of the crisis months before Shumlin’s speech. In July of 2013, she traveled to Portland, Maine, after hearing that posters were going up across the city addressing a rise in overdoses. Like choking posters in restaurants — but for heroin. “That’s what prompted me to say, ‘I’ve got to do a story on this,” said Seelye. “If in a city, they’re telling people publically how to avoid an overdose, it must be a problem.”

Seelye and the photographer, Cheryl Senter, accompanied heroin addicts to an abandoned train tunnel, where they witnessed the addicts shoot up. The photographs and video that accompany Seelye’s reporting are shocking. “I think that story was way early,” Seelye said. It is one of the more typical heroin stories under her byline. “I think in the early part of my own familiarization with this was when I approached it in a more conventional way, just to learn about it, to understand the scope of it, to understand addiction,” she said.

In the years since that story, Seelye has tackled the issue from less obvious angles. She’s reported on an addiction treatment home for pregnant women and overdose victims who save lives through organ donation. “Those things are a little bit, not hidden, but they’re kind of below the surface,” said Seelye.

And it’s not just the reporting that’s different, it’s the way in which Seelye presents it. “At the Times,” Seelye said, “we are really experimenting with different kinds of storytelling.” In 2016, Seelye interviewed several grandparents who were caring for their grandchildren, because their own children were incarcerated, or in rehab, or still struggling to get clean. “Rather than writing a straight story, just quoting all these grandparents, I organized their quotes into themes,” Seelye said. These themes, such as “Scrambled Relationships” and “Parenting, Again” show the ubiquitous nature of the epidemic.

Instead of approaching opioids through overdose rates or one addict’s treatment narrative, Seelye writes in oblique, indirect ways. “It’s not just the addict, or just the addict’s family, or the people who are being robbed so people can pay for their drugs,” Seelye said. The epidemic permeates all parts of society.

“It’s really got its tentacles into everything,” she said.

A common story will center on an addict, their road to recovery, and often, their death after completing, or leaving, a treatment program (an addict will often come out of rehab 30 days clean, relapse, and overdose due to lowered tolerance). “Readers and writers become numb after a while, to the same story of a person’s misfortune,” said Seelye. An unorthodox angle is more engaging for both the journalist covering the epidemic, and the reader trying to understand it.

In the 1960s and 70s, there was a quip popularized by the Nixon administration: “you’ve seen one slum, you’ve seen them all.” Seelye sees traces of this sentiment today. “I think for some people, the addiction epidemic has taken that on, you know, ‘you’ve seen one addict, you’ve seen them all,’ kind of thing,” said Seelye. Whether it’s due to numbness, apathy, or simply a lack of concern, this attitude hinders solutions to the worsening opioid crisis.

While Seelye’s approach may serve to counteract public desensitization, there is still a need for basic reporting on this issue. “I think readers bring a lot of their own experience to this,” she said, “they’ll see it the way they want to see it.” At times, a reader’s personal experience with addiction may not be informed by fact. Sustained reporting is needed to ensure an awareness of the most recent developments in addiction treatment.

“The thing to remember is that even if you write a story once, it’s not like you can go on and assume everyone read that story,” Seelye said. She’ll get emails from readers who point out what they perceive to be a blind spot in her reporting, not realizing she had covered said blind spot in a previous story. The difficulty is that “you don’t want to recap all your work in every story you write,” she said.

Seelye’s work shows just how complicated this epidemic is, and the wide array of angles a journalist could take when covering opioids. “You could take a Wikipedia approach,” Seelye said, and just give the who, what, where, when, and why. The main issue with such an approach is the complexity of the epidemic. “In a lot of stories, you have a standard context paragraph, but in this case, it seems to me there are just so many things going on,” she said.

Seelye is right; this crisis cannot be summed up in 100 words. There is no single paragraph that every journalist can use to bring readers up to speed. As such, each writer contextualizes the epidemic differently, which can complicate citizens’ views on addiction and recovery.

Even the language itself varies among news organizations. Many of Seelye’s pieces feature “heroin,” as opposed to “opioid,” in the headlines. She noted that she doesn’t write her headlines — her editors do — but she maintained that heroin as a fitting word. “I think heroin is certainly a more arresting word than opioid,” she said. “Opioid sounds sort of scientific, distant.” Heroin will have different connotations for readers than opioid, which might explain variation in terminology across newspapers. For Seelye, heroin is a “headline word.”

Last year, a Berkeley Media Studies Group article posited whether “news coverage of the opioid epidemic reinforces existing stereotypes of the disease.” Their inquiry centers largely on terminology. Most journalists who write about the epidemic will grapple with language; there are ongoing debates over “addiction” versus “substance use disorder,” or whether this is a heroin, opioid, opiate, or even fentanyl epidemic.

“As this cascade of drugs keeps happening,” Seelye said, “next time it will be a something else epidemic.” As Seelye continues to cover the crisis, she worries less about terminology, and more about finding novel perspectives from which to report.

In Part III, Pulitzer Prize-nominated Jason Cherkis talks about his reporting experience for his 21,000 word piece, “Dying To Be Free.”