Akron, we need to talk …about the Beacon Journal

Since we’re all about ending the silence, let me clear my throat…

A screenshot from ohio.com/heroin where you can find all of their recent coverage on the opiate epidemic

To judge from the headlines, you could be led to believe the only opioid addicts worth mentioning in Summit County are those who have overdosed or died. That the only people whose story is worth telling are those who’ve lost a loved one. That the only answers worth exploring are through law enforcement and prosecution or as the by-products of candlelight vigils and paper-sponsored forums. A heavy, pervasive sense of helplessness surrounds the opiate epidemic and while it certainly isn’t the daily’s fault, I think they’re doing more to fuel it than fight it. As a result, there are sides to this crisis that you seldom glimpse in the regular, ongoing coverage.

For every awful, heartbreaking overdose, several hundred opiate addicts are successfully maintaining their sobriety and their optimism for the future, which is a thing that should make our helplessness feel unwarranted. The best work being done through our criminal justice system is focused around recovery. The people do not struggle with addiction because they are morally flawed. When they succumb, it’s to a powerful chemical hijacking and rewiring of their brains. When they overcome, it’s the kind of miracle we should celebrate so it becomes easier to repeat, if we truly care about ending this epidemic.

We do not find much cause for celebration in the daily. The repeated focus on fatal overdoses forms a narrative that is dangerous for our community: That there is only one way addiction ends. It is absolutely important to hear from the mothers and fathers and siblings and friends who have lost those they love, but when we overlook the living, we condemn some to death. The consistent focus on the families of addicts is no doubt well-intentioned but we’re beyond the tipping point where it begins to reinforce the stigma that users are bad people. If only they cared more about their families…

Headlines like “Allure of heroin proves stronger than love for Northeast Ohio man” summarize the daily’s take on the opiate epidemic. If the message isn’t about how an addict failed to love his family more than drugs then it’s about what a burden they are on their loved ones. When the ABJ reported on local treatment options, they made it about the impact limited resources have on the families. Again, it is an important perspective. It just shouldn’t be the only one.

I get it. It’s easier to picture having an addict in your life than to imagine being an addict yourself. But at what point do you think about the people trying to kick this addiction? To date, I’ve noticed two ABJ stories actually about recovery. One regarding a podcast. The most recent talked to a few recovering addicts about their first high, which by the end gave you reason to believe addiction can be beat. Even if there were ten times the number of those stories than I found, that pales compared to the 200 stories you’ll find Ohio.com by searching “heroin” and 200 if you search “overdose.” (I’m guessing the searches end at 200.)

The Beacon Journal’s blind spot, I think, stems from a lack of empathy with addicts. It isn’t that they lack sympathy, but they haven’t seemed able to embrace the reality that we’re all generally as vulnerable to the same chemical hijacking as active addicts — and therefore we’re as likely to become addicts ourselves. That hit home for me observing Recovery Court. (Story on pg. 22)

I was 15 when I was prescribed my first bottle of Lortab. Over the years, it was torn ligaments, broken bones, teeth pulled, dry socket, kidney stones, pneumonia and minor surgery. Each time, the doctor or dentist gave me at least 30 pills to manage pain that, maybe, lasted a week. Vicodin, Oxy, Percocet. I saved my leftovers as a rainy-day stash. What if I got hurt or had another kidney stone? In practice, it was more like wanting a two-fer to make cheap beer go further. What if I wanted help passing out when I can’t sleep? What if I like the way they make me feel? I don’t know what it would have taken for my reckless use to have crossed over into something dangerous, but since four out of five new heroin users were first hooked on painkillers, I understand how someone can unintentionally end up with an addiction they never wanted or saw coming.

Turn to page 20 and read. I’ve seldom been as proud of another human not related by blood as I am of our managing editor, M. Sophie Franchi, who writes frankly and honestly about her heroin addiction and what it took for her to overcome it. Every time I read it, I’m filled with the same kind of hope I feel when I enter Recovery Court. These stories are not outliers, and while they may not yet be the norm, I’d like for them to be.

That’s why I’ve been so frustrated lately with the Beacon Journal, which has done a Trump-ian job describing a foe only they can defeat through their reporting and their “Ending The Silence” event. I doubt that’s their intended message, but it’s the one I get. Based off a dozen conversations about the series and this event, suffice it to say I’m not alone. However, I allowed myself this commentary not because I want to compete or replace the ABJ (I don’t and we can’t) but because the people of Akron — myself, a subscriber, included — need the Beacon Journal. But we also need it to be good.

Though journalists may spend their days critiquing the powers-that-be, they generally see themselves as the underdogs, not as one of the powers. So, I doubt this will be well-received. I understand this may come across like an unwarranted attack. But it is neither an attack, nor unwarranted. As individuals, I have absolutely no doubt that the reporters, editors and staff care deeply about this issue and the city of Akron. Their sincerity isn’t in question, but editorially, I think they’ve lost perspective. One of the great things about journalism is getting to ask smart and experienced people questions about the subjects we don’t understand. Right now, the Beacon Journal seems to be telling us they already know best.

So yes, BJ, we need to talk. But not about heroin. We know how deadly it is. We need to talk about how we talk about this epidemic. The danger of telling that story poorly still needs to be explored. Until the successes are given their due, I don’t think we can realistically expect them to ever outnumber the failures.

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