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What I learned reporting on an opioid crisis in a community that didn’t perceive it as a crisis

Topics in Health: Lessons From The Field

What I learned reporting on an opioid crisis in a community that didn’t perceive it as a crisis

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What I learned reporting on an opioid crisis in a community that didn’t perceive it as a crisis
Oildale Community Action Team director Dave Kadel stands with a hypodermic needle he found.
(Photo by Kerry Klein)

A few months ago, I received a voicemail from a woman inviting me to give a talk about the local opioid crisis to a prominent community service organization. “I want somebody who can talk about the statistics and the urgency of the situation,” she said, “and there’s just no one I can find.” She said she had been trying for months to find a local health official or law enforcement officer to speak on the issue, when she finally heard me reporting about it on the radio. “You’re one of my last resorts,” she said.

I felt her frustration. I had recently launched my 2018 Data Fellowship Project, “In Recovery: Opioids, Pain and Hope in California’s San Joaquin Valley,” all about trends in opioid use and treatment in Central California, and in a handful of early interviews, I found that I was educating local health experts on opioid trends in their own coverage areas.

One unfortunate culprit for this lack of urgency is the fact that, in the big picture, the opioid epidemic has not reached the fever pitch in California that it has in parts of Appalachia and the Midwest. Even though this region’s fatal opioid overdose rate is higher than California’s as a whole, it’s still far lower than the national average.

But zoom in on individual communities and the crisis looms large — not just for those losing loved ones to overdoses, but also for emergency room physicians, law enforcement officers, and the alarmingly high number of people who are struggling with addiction and lack adequate access to treatment. Those were the stories I sought to tell with this project. And although a lack of appreciation of the opioid problem from some community members presented challenges, a handful of investigative reporting techniques — and some fairly basic ones — helped to overcome them.

Challenge 1: A dearth of opioid expertise

Health experts weren’t the only public figures I found to be disconnected from the opioid crisis. During a press conference, a gaffe from the head of a local law enforcement agency suggested she was far behind in understanding the menace of fentanyl. On another occasion, a representative of a police force struggled to produce data on drug-related crimes in his city because, he said, “the data isn’t very accurate.”

The solution: Find expertise in other places — or create your own

In response, I focused less on talking heads and more on community members — like Charlie Huddleson and Donna Clopton, community advocates working to reduce the influence of drugs in the blighted Kern County community of Oildale. The fact that they haven’t memorized state data on opioid overdoses doesn’t matter — working through recovery themselves, they’re visiting the homeless and nudging people toward recovery every day, and witnessing the devastation that drugs bring to lives in their community.

In other cases, I created my own expertise, using publicly available datasets and information obtained through records requests. The California Opioid Overdose Surveillance Dashboard contains a wealth of freely available data on opioid use and treatment, much of which can be organized by ZIP code, and combing through county-level data on access to opioid treatment from the Urban Institute is ultimately what clinched my first story: That this region of Central California suffers from some of the worst treatment gaps in the state.

Although a handful of my public records requests were either denied or are still ongoing — that’s another story, and the source of a different kind of frustration during this reporting process — I received many invaluable datasets that I hadn’t seen reported anywhere else, particularly on drugs seized by local law enforcement agencies and the nature of admissions into county-administered drug treatment programs. I actually ended up with so much data that I intend to continue my reporting on this series over the next few months.

Challenge 2: Highly variable data

When I finally sat down to sift through the data I had compiled on the community of Oildale, I found that different datasets pointed in different directions. Why, the year fatal overdoses plummeted, did overdose-related hospitalizations continue to rise? And why did overdose deaths bounce back up the next year? I found unclear trends like this in many datasets — particularly at the ZIP code level, where populations can be small enough for seemingly small changes to greatly sway the patterns over time.

The solution: Explain the caveats

Sometimes, there are no clear answers — but that doesn’t mean there’s no story. Instead of trying to determine if the crisis was really turning around in Oildale, I decided to highlight the ongoing work to clean up the community. And instead of trying to definitively interpret the data for myself, I got my sources to do it. I brought charts along on my interviews, a strategy that proved highly fruitful. It brought out important theories, for instance, that a steep drop in fatal overdoses one year could be the result of a medication-assisted treatment facility opening nearby. Simultaneously, it revealed that in many cases, we just can’t know if an intervention is working until many years down the line — but that shouldn’t prevent people from being enthusiastic about it now.

Challenge 3: Naysayers

Many times while reporting this series, I came across sources who’d tell me something akin to “I don’t know anything about opioids, but I can tell you all about meth.” Many were even dismissive of opioids as a widespread problem. Of course: Methamphetamine has been destroying lives, especially in the West, since long before the country’s most recent surge in opioid use.

At first, I was resistant to a meth story. This was a series on opioids, and despite the drug’s longevity in the U.S., data about meth is hard to come by. Kern County’s most recent report on meth abuse was published in 2009, and health agencies in California don’t regularly track meth-related health complications. But once enough sources had asked me why I wasn’t covering meth, I finally did.

The solution: If they’re right, tell their story

What finally convinced me was receiving public records about drugs seized by both the Bakersfield Police Department and the Kern County Sheriff’s Office. Both showed that, outside of marijuana, meth is by far the most common drug encountered by law enforcement. The day I spent with Bakersfield Police Officers ended up being one of the most instructive of the entire reporting period, and it resulted in a character-driven story about how law enforcement struggle to control meth and other drugs in Bakersfield.

What a lot of this comes down to is simply taking the time to be responsive to your audience and your characters. In the end, I did accept the invitation to speak to that local community service organization. It was something I expected to fall outside of the reporting process but it, too, became a part of my community engagement as audience members later approached me with stories of their own.


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