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In a community long wary of bad press, a reporter finds a way to build trust

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

In a community long wary of bad press, a reporter finds a way to build trust

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Lupe Salazar brushes her granddaughter Neveah's hair before school. Lupe's son has been in and out of jail his whole life for crimes related to his heroin addiction, and she is raising his two children.

In northern New Mexico, a heroin epidemic has been at crisis levels for decades.

A cluster of small towns in Rio Arriba County, about an hour north of Santa Fe, has been struggling with an intergenerational heroin problem since the Vietnam days, when veterans returning home introduced the drug to what was then a largely agricultural area. Since then, opioid addiction has come to permeate almost every aspect of daily life in Española — family dynamics are shaped by addiction, the prisons are full, schools suffer from struggling students and high dropout rates, and social services are stretched thin. A high percentage of children in the area are being raised by their grandparents, as fathers and mothers recover from addiction or succumb to it. Drug counseling and rehab centers in the area suffer from financial and institutional shortfalls, including a complete shutdown of all behavioral health clinics several years ago and a $4 million cut to the state’s behavioral health budget in the 2016 legislative session.

It’s a story that’s been reported extensively by other media, most often by national reporters who write a feature on the severity of the overdose problem, or local media that report on the latest health department statistics on overdoses or budget allocations. I knew I wanted to come at my fellowship series differently, and offer something that was more inclusive of the community’s perspective on the heroin epidemic. When I started working on the project, I planned on taking an investigative, data-driven approach — I would dig through state and federal health statistics, point out trends, get all the funding data I could to show where the money was and wasn’t, and once I got a handle on all that data, I’d find some human voices to put a face to the numbers.

I faced a lot of heat from the community up front. For one thing, northern New Mexico is a tight-knit place, and outsiders really stick out. Sometimes journalists are met with mistrust, which can make cultivating sources tough. There was a real fatigue from the negative headlines about the community. People felt they had been burned by news coverage before; they felt that journalists saw their community as a way to get a sexy headline and then leave. 

With this in mind, I decided to flip my process. Instead of putting my focus on the data and the budget numbers, I would need to put human experiences of people living through the epidemic at the center of the story. Data and documents were secondary. Surprisingly, this approach made my story unique — while there had been a lot of news reports about the statistics and overdose rates, no journalist had put in the time to tell the personal stories of the community in depth.

But getting those stories took a lot of work up front. I had to break through the mistrust, convince people of our newsroom’s sincerity, and find subjects who were willing to showcase their family’s struggles with addiction in our story. To get that done, we decided to set aside the first month of the project just for source building. I met with directors of family support groups, addiction counselors, public school teachers and doctors. I sat in on support group meetings and met teachers and school social workers for happy hour — without a microphone or a reporters notebook. I talked about the project with the community, and asked what previous news reports had missed and what they would focus on if they were writing the story. We used GroundSource surveys and in-person meetings with high school students for further context.

It paid off. For one thing, I was able to find a solid cohort of families, addiction workers, and active and recovering addicts who were willing to let me embed with them for the story. I also gained a valuable understanding of how the community viewed the opioid epidemic, which I would have missed if I went in cold and started writing the story without connecting with the community first. This, like a lot of stories about vulnerable kids and families, just can’t be told without the trust and participation of the community.

A deep-dive into the day-to-day lives of kids and families suffering with addiction revealed what numbers can’t. Data is always important, and necessary for context, but with stories about vulnerable communities, the magic is in the little things. The picture of an incarcerated father an 8-year-old daughter keeps in her school desk, the quiver in an addict’s voice when he’s turned away from treatment — those were the kinds of things that people felt had been left out of other stories about the epidemic.

The big takeaway for me was this: Often as reporters, our expectations at the outset are wrong. In northern New Mexico, press coverage has been so negative over the years that it has helped create a harmful reputation for the community. People (especially kids) told me that outsiders tended to assume they were drug addicts and, as they put it, “losers” — stereotypes that can impact self-esteem, cause stress, and in turn lead to more drug use and addiction. The community saw the issue differently, largely as a result of the cultural disenfranchisement and neglect by the state government over the decades. Taking the time up front to really grasp the epidemic from their perspective helped me to avoid perpetuating the negative news cycle that people had grown so weary of, and just as importantly, it let me frame the story in a way that really resonated with the community. And with the sources I’ve built and the trust I’ve earned in the community, I’m in a really good position to keep covering the drug epidemic going forward.

Read the stories from Ed Williams’ 2016 National Fellowship project here.


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