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Noozhawk Journalists Recount Lessons Learned from Prescription Drug Abuse Series

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Noozhawk Journalists Recount Lessons Learned from Prescription Drug Abuse Series

Picture of Bill Macfadyen

This article was written as part of Day 12 in Noozhawk's 12-day, six-week special investigative series. Related links are below.

The Noozhawk's Prescription for Abuse series is a special project exploring the misuse and abuse of prescription medications in Santa Barbara County. Our series is a result of an exciting and unique partnership with USC's Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism, which awarded Noozhawk a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship to undertake this important work.

Through our reporting and presentation, we will establish an independent baseline of where our community is with respect to the misuse and abuse of prescription medications; how the problem is affecting health care, education, law enforcement, criminal justice, addiction and treatment, and our culture and society; what we as a community can do to educate ourselves about prevention and controls; and how we can perhaps reverse what appears to be a very troubling trend.

Noozhawk staff writers Lara Cooper and Giana Magnoli are the lead reporters on the project, and they've been assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St.Oegger; content producer Cliff Redding; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.

Ashley Almada, Garrett Geyer, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of our story sources.

The project is sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation in partnership with KEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca. The Annenberg School is assisted by the Renaissance Journalism Center at San Francisco State University.


Day One:

» Quiet Epidemic of Prescription Drug Abuse Taking a Toll on Santa Barbara County

» After Losing It All, Former Drug Addict Looking Forward to Renewed Life

» USC, California Endowment Unite to Support Health Journalism at the Source

» Bill Macfadyen: Prescription for Abuse Project Is a Series of Opportunities

Day Two:

» Local, National Statistics Reveal Alarming Jumps in Misuse and Abuse of Medications

» Marijuana Use Trends Higher, Especially Among Young Adults, Sparking Public Health Concerns

» Alcohol Plays a Role All Its Own in Setting the Stage for Local Abuse, Overdoses

Day Three:

» Understanding Addiction Key to Dealing With Prescription Drug Abuse

» Donna Genera Has Seen the Price and Perils of Drug Addiction from All Sides

» Rich Detty Bears Burden of Not Knowing Extent of Dead Son's Drug Use

Day Four:

» Escalation of Drug Overdose Deaths Includes Increased Presence of Prescription Medications

» Santa Barbara Teen News Network Adds Another Dimension to Prescription Drug Abuse Series

» Dr. Chris Lambert Sounds Warning on Mixing Prescription Drugs with Alcohol

Day Five:

» Local Oversight of Prescription Medications Is Far More Focused Than State, Federal Controls

» Elderly Are Particularly Vulnerable to Both Misuse and Abuse of Prescription Drugs

» Second-Generation Pharmacist Peter Caldwell Fills a Vital Role with Patient Health Care

Day Six:

» Early Education for Parents and Youth Emerges as Critical Tactic to Thwart Drug Use

» Student Highs Can Lead to Tragic Woes with Addiction's Hook Just One Fateful Step Away

» From an Early Age, Shereen Khatapoush Saw the Horrors of Substance Abuse

» As a Parent Herself, Prosecutor Von Nguyen Brings Empathy to Job in Juvenile Justice

Day Seven:

» Law Enforcement Fights Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse from Outside and Inside

» Sheriff Bill Brown a Strong Supporter of Re-Entry, Drug Abuse Treatment Efforts

» Speaking from Experience, Zona Seca's Kevin Smith Keeps Drug Abusers on Road to Recovery

Day Eight:

» Prescription Drug System Is Rife with Loopholes, Fraud and Lack of Oversight

» For Clinical Psychologist Neil Rocklin, Addiction Education Can't Begin Soon Enough

Day Nine:

» Drug Abuse Treatment Programs, Expertise Are Plentiful on South Coast

» Dr. David Agnew Sees Pain as Pathway to Abuse But Cautions Against Overreaction

Day Ten:

» Awareness, Disposal Key Elements to Reversing Tide of Prescription Drug Abuse

» Dr. Joe Blum Keeps Focus on His Veteran Patients Despite Health-Care System's Restraints

Day Eleven:

» Operation Medicine Cabinet Gets the Drop on Prescription Drug Disposal

» Lacey Johnson Gives UCSB Students an Education in Dealing with Drug Abuse and Addiction

Day Twelve:

» Santa Barbara County Officials Look for Solutions in Battle Against Prescription Drug Abuse

» Noozhawk Journalists Recount Lessons Learned from Prescription Drug Abuse Series

» Annenberg Fellowships Take a Diverse Approach to Community Health Journalism

» Dr. Nancy Leffert Champions Antioch University's Role in Fight Against Substance Abuse

» Professionals Working in Addiction Field Often Share Roots at Antioch University Santa Barbara

Staff talks trends, education, prevention, attitude, overprescribing and oversight — or lack thereof
Tuesday, October 18, 2011

It all started with toxicology reports from the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office.

“I pulled the overdose numbers for the first time a year and a half ago and was shocked at what I saw,” Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper said. “Dozens of prescription drugs were listed next to many of the people who had died.

“After we did the math, we saw that this type of death had tripled from 2008 to 2009. I’d had no idea until that point that things were that bad.”

Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen agreed.

“We figured the local patterns would be consistent with escalating national trends, but we didn’t know how pervasive prescription drug abuse was,” he said. “As a parent of young adults, it was terribly disturbing.”

Cooper was researching the issue of prescription medications long before Noozhawk was invited by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to apply for a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowshipoffered in partnership with San Francisco State University’s Renaissance Journalism Center.

“The thing that really stuck out to me was the pure number of people who accidentally overdosed from prescription drugs and drugs in general,” Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli said. “I had no idea. They get hundreds of cases a year.”

The information became the foundation for Noozhawk’s fellowship application and, six months later, its Prescription for Abuse series.

Cooper and Magnoli were the lead reporters on the project, which made its debut six weeks ago. They were assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St. Oegger; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.

Geyer, Ashley Almada, Hailey Sestak and Billy Spencer of the Santa Barbara Teen News Network filmed more than two dozen public-service videos featuring many of Noozhawk’s story sources.

And Noozhawk columnists Susan Ann Darley, Tim Durnin, Harris Sherline, andAlexandra Williams and Kymberly Williams-Evans also pitched in with commentary addressing aspects of the issue.

The project was sponsored by the Santa Barbara Foundation, the Mosher Foundation and Reckitt Benckiser Pharmaceuticals, in partnership withKEYT, sbTNN and Zona Seca.

One of Cooper’s first interviews on the project was with Lisa W., a mom who became addicted to Vicodin after a back injury.

“She was just a mom with three kids, and her family was absolutely torn apart by her drug addiction,” Cooper said of the woman, who spoke with Noozhawk on the condition that her last name not be used.

“After her interview, I realized, ‘This can happen to absolutely anyone.’ I think that was a kind of breakthrough moment for me, and, hopefully, readers picked up on that, too.”

Macfadyen said Noozhawk wanted to take advantage of its fellowship opportunity with a comprehensive project that could showcase the 4-year-old company’s journalism skills and professionalism.

“Our intention was to establish a baseline for where Santa Barbara is with respect to this problem, so we can use it as a reference point in the future and perhaps measure how successful we are at changing the impacts,” he said. “We fulfilled that mission. The larger issue of public awareness and education is ongoing, however.”

Society’s seemingly casual attitude toward drug use and an inconsistent response are part of the problem, Macfadyen said.

“We as parents have a responsibility to teach our children about the risks and danger and to hold them, and ourselves, accountable,” he said. “If we’re nonchalant or exhibit a tolerance about drug use, we’ve lost our moral authority on the issue — and just about any teenager is going to run with that.

“We need to do a much better job with prevention, and probably at an even younger age.”

Another glaring shortcoming Noozhawk discovered is the monitoring and discipline of physicians who overprescribe or fraudulently prescribe.

“From what we could find, there isn’t any,” Macfadyen said. “It’s appalling that the industry doesn’t police itself.”

Education is key to prevention efforts and Magnoli said she hopes the public can use Noozhawk’s project to be more open about prescription drug abuse.

“I think we’ve raised some awareness and I hope that continues to expand,” Cooper said. “I’m hoping that some public forums this winter will broaden that audience beyond the readers who come to our site.”

Macfadyen said Noozhawk likes to tackle more complex community issues in collaboration with other organizations and stakeholders.

“We are very appreciative of the opportunity that USC’s Annenberg School gave us with this project,” he said. “What we were attempting to do was quite a stretch for our small and youthful staff, but we were paired with remarkable journalists as advisers who challenged us to aim higher than we thought possible and to view the issues from angles we just didn’t know existed. I think we made Annenberg proud.”

Noozhawk business writer Alex Kacik can be reached Follow Noozhawk on Twitter: @noozhawk,@NoozhawkNews and @NoozhawkBiz. Connect with Noozhawk on Facebook.