Lessons learned from reporting on prescription drug abuse deaths

Published on
February 28, 2011

The Rev. Donnie Coots visits the closed drug treatment facility he started in honor of his son, Joshua. By Scott Utterback, The Courier-Journal. The most powerful moment for me while reporting on a recent project on prescription drug abuse deaths was seeing the Rev. Donnie Coots standing among the ruins of his once thriving drug rehabilitation center.

Coots - a coal-miner-turned-pastor-turned-rehab-operator from Viper, Ky. - held back tears while showing us what had become of "Joshua's Dream," the rehab center on top of an Appalachian mountain that was named after his now-deceased son,  a victim of prescription drug abuse. The center is now closed due to funding issues.

I, fellow Louisville Courier-Journal reporter Laura Ungar and photographer Scott Utterback had driven the few hours east of Louisville to find the toll of prescription drug abuse, and what we found was the rubble of Joshua's Dream still smoldering from a fire that had recently ripped it apart.

Vandals had also ransacked every other building on the 21-acre property, stripping aluminum and copper fixtures presumably to sell for drug money, Coots said.

"The whole porch is gone," he said in a defeated tone, after looking at another building for a long moment. "They took the whole porch."

As reporters, I feel we always talk about finding the people behind the numbers, but this interview made all facets of our story more real for me: the deaths, the crime, the people left behind and the need for more resources.

Almost a month ago we published a three-day series on the rising number of deaths from prescription drug abuse and the decreasing amount of funds being put toward the crisis. (To see the stories from "Prescription for Tragedy," go to www.courier-journal.com/drugabuse.)

While most of our time was spent analyzing spreadsheets of death totals, gathering state budgets and pulling together the many threads of information required to give our story legs, the part that made the biggest impact on me was meeting people like Coots.

And I think - I hope - those people also made a difference to our stories' readers.  

To help other journalists publish similar projects, Laura and I came up with some tips. The first has to do with Coots.

  • Let the people tell the story. Finding the "real people" is a no-brainer to most reporters, but it's a task that took a lot of effort on our part - or, at least it did at the beginning of this project's process. The couple of people who we thought would be shoo-ins to help us weren't feeling up to it after talking to other reporters and community members about their loved ones' deaths, and then it was the Hail-Mary-type requests that actually yielded results. So we learned not to leave any phone numbers uncalled or invitations unanswered. We found the most success reaching out to community organizers. These people also introduced us to residents, who might not have talked to us otherwise. Getting key people on board with your project early can pay off greatly. It also helps to visit people in person as opposed to relying on a phone interview. Laura had remembered a mention of Coots in an old news story, and on a whim, we looked him up to see if he would be up to talking to us. And because we were able to meet him at his home, we were also able to go with him to see Joshua's Dream. 
  • Focus on the impact. At first, when we were discussing budget cuts with officials, we got the scoop on what those cuts meant: particular programs being cut, less police officers on the street, not as much drug education for children, etc. But an editor pushed us to go deeper. Who would be most affected by programs being cut and what would that mean for their lives? What will fewer officers on the street mean to nearby residents? What will happen to the kids if they receive less education?
  • The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention have some excellent databases you can find online. We used the compressed mortality data found in the CDC's Wide-ranging Online Data for Epidemiologic Research, or WONDER, databases. We contacted state epidemiologists for help identifying the ICD-10 codes used to identify deaths from prescription drugs - there are over 100 codes - and then were able to plug them into this database to get the statistics that became the meat of our story.
  • Follow the money to breath new life into a stale story topic. When we first approached our editors about doing this story, we were met with hesitation. Some of them felt that prescription drug abuse was a tired topic and one that many readers were no longer interested in. It was during one of these story meetings that an editor suggested juxtaposing the rising number of deaths with what was happening to the budgets of the agencies charged with fighting the abuse. This provided us a way to tell this story in a new way.
  • Look beyond the easy answers and stereotypes. This could go with any story, but with this project, in particular, we faced many stereotypes about the issue: That it was a poor-people problem among uneducated people who chose to be addicts, etc. We were even told this by elected officials. But after digging deeper and talking to former addicts and community organizers, we found that this problem greatly impacts the middle class and that many of the addicts began taking prescription pills after legitimately being prescribed them by a doctor. Along with the need for more funding to fight prescription drug abuse, I hope readers learned through our stories that the stereotypes do not necessarily apply.
  • Try to bring in all members of the publishing process (i.e. editors, photographers, designers, copy editors) early and often. We suffered some small setbacks when people were brought into the process mid-way through. A few times they had questions and complaints that we had dealt with several months prior.
  • If you are working with others on the story, rely on one another's strengths and meet often to coordinate coverage. Laura and I started off meeting once or twice a month and grew into meeting once a day to discuss our progress. Using sources she already had from covering health, she tracked down several officials, while I worked more with the many spreadsheets we used to collect our stats.
  • Put all your data into one spreadsheet with several tabs and designate someone to be in charge of it. This sort of goes with the last bullet point. Our main Excel file had 22 tabs, each a different spreadsheet grouping the numbers in a different way. And if something needed to be changed in the spreadsheet, we made sure to communicate about it.

I hope this helps any other reporters hoping to do stories similar to ours. And if you have any questions, feel free to contact me at ehagedorn@courier-journal.com and Laura Ungar at lungar@courier-journal.com.