Part IV — A DIY Heroin Beat

In Cincinnati, Terry DeMio became the country’s first Heroin Reporter

via The Cincinnati Enquirer

Google “heroin reporter,” and you’ll find Terry DeMio at the top of the 884,000 results. Click the link, and you’ll find DeMio’s promise to her readers: “I’m looking out for your best interests in suburban Boone, Kenton and Campbell counties.”

America’s opioid epidemic is a public health crisis, and thus, necessarily in the public interest. DeMio acts in the interests of her readers through solutions-oriented, accountability journalism.

Along with her editor at the Cincinnati Enquirer, Peter Bhatia, DeMio witnessed the opioid epidemic as it took root in Northern Kentucky and Ohio. “I think Peter saw both the enormity of the public health crisis, and the response from the community and made this decision to say, ‘Hey, let’s just devote your time to covering this epidemic,’” DeMio said. In January of 2016, DeMio made the transition from a general assignment reporter covering heroin (among other things), to Heroin Reporter.

via The Cincinnati Enquirer

At first, DeMio was hesitant. “I didn’t know what it would be, whether it would work, we had no plans,” she said.

A journalist for twenty-four years, DeMio began reporting on the epidemic four years ago. Over time she accumulated a list of national sources, and felt she was generally in a pretty good place. “I was kind of self-motivated to immerse myself in this as much as possible,” she added.

Even so, when she decided to take on the epidemic as a full-time beat, she sought further opportunities to learn about drug addiction. She attended the American Society of Addiction Medicine’s 2016 Annual Conference, dedicated to discussing the opioid epidemic. She didn’t cover the conference, rather, she used it as an educational opportunity where she met with several experts and broadened her access to inside sources.

Now over a year into heroin reporting, DeMio’s devotion to her beat extends beyond the stories that run in the Enquirer. She said parents of addicts call her seeking advice and information about addiction and treatment. A local woman once called her, seeking help with her daughter who had been going through opioid withdrawal in jail. DeMio, familiar with the jail system and the people inside, called the medical office, and got an update on the daughter’s situation.

DeMio tries to be as open as possible with readers. She’s part of several private Facebook groups where parents or addicts can speak. While she doesn’t use these groups to source stories, she does use them to stay involved in the community, and be of service when she can. “I don’t interfere,” she said, “I don’t ever give my opinion.” In the interest of truth, she explains, “if someone ever has something to say, that’s either a question, or just plain factually wrong, I’ll respond.”

In 2016, DeMio won the Ohio Psychiatric Physicians Foundation Enlightenment Award, for her work increasing public understanding, and her efforts to destigmatize addiction. Though it isn’t a journalism award, the OPPF honors people who, in their own ways, positively impact the state of treatment in Ohio.

As DeMio sees her readership grow, she also sees changes in the public’s perception of addiction. From doctors to law enforcement to public health officials, “these coalitions,” she said, “have made dramatic changes in their approach as they’ve come to learn more. I can’t say I caused that, but I know I’ve been a big part of it.”

In his award-winning 2015 book Dreamland, Sam Quinones echoed DeMio’s point. Through his extensive research on the rise of prescription opioids and heroin, largely focused in Ohio, Quinones observed:

“nationwide, attitudes toward addicts and addiction seemed to be shifting, though slowly. Addicts were not moral failures, deviants and criminals.”

In the years leading to the creation of her beat, DeMio found herself dedicating more and more time on the epidemic, despite other responsibilities she had as an editor. “I needed to pay attention to it. I knew I did. And it’s getting worse,” she said. Now, with her full-time beat, DeMio has time.

“To get back into reporting itself was interesting, but to be given a create-your-own beat, nobody seems to be doing this. It’s such an important issue, I just feel very lucky,” she said. With the freedom to shape her beat, she can be more critical of what does or does not warrant an article.

Barring an angle that makes an overdose story compelling, she emphasized how her reporting is triggered by overdoses, not centered on them. “I do not do the, ‘Oh my God, look at what happened, look at this overdose,’ kind of thing,” she said. “I’m not saying it’s wrong, and it can certainly grab readers.” Maybe tragic overdoses just don’t shock her anymore, she said. Perhaps that’s why DeMio tends toward solutions-oriented journalism.

DeMio will, however, report a surge in overdoses in a given week, as it is breaking news in her community. Those stories tend to get traffic, she noted, but she aims for a “multi-pronged approach” that also allows for deeper, more involved enterprise reporting. Her long-form articles help contextualize the numbers stories, which can sometimes be misunderstood, and are, for some readers, less impactful than the human-interest overdose stories that are common in most national papers.

Treatment, she said, should be the focus. “I feel like it certainly isn’t all in how we treat or don’t treat this, but I absolutely know that it’s a huge chunk of our problem,” DeMio said. As such, journalists should emphasize various approaches to treatment in their reporting.

Controversy over forms of treatment — abstinence-based versus medical assisted treatment (MAT) — prompt conflict within the medical and policy-making communities. However, these debates do not always enter the public discourse. Far too often, ideological arguments for or against abstinence and MAT obscure facts and research.

“I grew up in the produce, produce, produce era,” she said, “but I’m not gonna just throw something out, and it’s encouraged to take your time, do it right.”

DeMio’s in depth reporting takes all the latest science into account, ensuring her readers have access to the right information. As a heroin beat reporter, she is afforded the time and resources necessary to report on the epidemic in a comprehensive way.

DeMio doesn’t expect changes in her beat anytime soon. For the foreseeable future, she will continue to disseminate resources, hold doctors accountable, and report solutions-oriented responses to America’s opioid epidemic.

“There’s absolutely no end in sight,” she said, principally because public policy responses to the opioid epidemic are slow-moving. “I think the editors are very satisfied that we’ve made a commitment to this public health issue,” she said.

“We’re not going to abandon it.”