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The data was shocking. But the people behind the numbers showed how opioids have devastated generations in Maine

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The data was shocking. But the people behind the numbers showed how opioids have devastated generations in Maine

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Tiana Warriner, a 28-year-old mother of two, was one of the mothers featured in the reporter’s stories for the Lewiston Sun Jour
Tiana Warriner, a 28-year-old mother of two, was one of the mothers featured in the reporter’s stories for the Lewiston Sun Journal on the toll take by opioids in Maine.
(Photo by Andree Kehn/Sun Journal)

I never get emotional in interviews. But one day nearly did me in.

I was interviewing Nikole Powell, a 33-year-old mother of three incarcerated at the Southern Maine Women’s Reentry Center in Windham, Maine. This was her third prison stint. She was sentenced in 2020 on multiple drug possession and trafficking charges. After more than a decade struggling with substance use disorders, she found her way into recovery.

I started the interview process late in my reporting for my series, “Legacy of Pain,” on the impact of the opioid crisis on Maine’s children and families. This project, for the 2021 Data Fellowship, was unlike anything I had set out to do before.

After months of collecting data, cleaning it up and “asking questions” of it, I finally started to talk to people. I was confident in what the data was telling me. But numbers can only tell part of a story. The “people behind the numbers” are really the heart of a story.

Powell spent nearly three hours speaking with me and Sun Journal photographer Andree Kehn. The stories she told of her childhood in Alaska, with her heroin-addicted father, were devastating. She moved to Maine at age 15 and did well for a while. When she was 19, with a 1-year-old son, she injured her back while working construction. Her family doctor prescribed her a high daily dose of oxycodone, and for the next two years he continued to fill her prescriptions without question.

It was an emotional interview to begin with. But I didn’t tear up until Powell told a story about seeing her middle son, who has Down syndrome, last fall after months of fighting to remove him from her ex-husband’s house. A judge finally granted her mother guardianship. Her mother and sister flew from Washington state to pick him up.

Powell hadn’t seen her son in months until earlier that day, when he gave her a quick wave from the road outside the reentry center. He looked happy. Now a sergeant led her to the parking lot, where she saw her mother, sister and son. 

He was upset. She asked him why.

Powell said he took her face between his hands, looked her in the eye and said, “Because I just miss you, mom.”

I already had troves of data on pain pill distribution, drug-related deaths and emergency room visits, rising special education costs and the growing demand for child welfare services in Maine when I walked into that conference room at the reentry center.

I knew that preliminary reports put the number of people who died of a drug overdose last year at 632. I knew that referrals to the Maine Office of Child and Family Services had climbed over the last few years, as had staffing shortages. I could see that while lawmakers clamped down on opioid prescriptions, fentanyl was flooding into Maine’s illicit drug trade, sending deaths soaring.

The numbers were stark. But they needed human context. Powell and others whom I spoke to for the series drove home the utter devastation this crisis has wreaked on generations of Mainers.

The reporting process was grueling at times. I wrangled massive amounts of data. I spent hours talking to people about some of the darkest and most difficult moments of their lives. It was overwhelming sometimes to sit back and think that I was barely scratching the surface of these issues.

That said — and I know this sounds cliché — I was inspired by these individuals’ resilience and by the hard work that so many people are putting into solving the problem, whether or not they have been personally touched it. 

I learned a lot throughout the course of this project. I hope other reporters can find some of these useful:

  • Use a transcription service. I use Otter.ai. These tools are extremely helpful but not perfect. Spend some time at the end of every day cleaning up the transcripts from the day’s interviews. I didn’t do this and I wish I had. It’s a pain and probably the last thing you want to do after a long day, but you’ll be so glad you did it later. It’s doubly helpful as a way to note important points or mark where you want to follow-up or need to fact-check.

  • Estimate the amount of time you think a task will take you — then double it. You think cleaning up that dataset is only going to take you an hour? Take it from me, it’ll be at least two. This will help you and your editor set more reasonable expectations of yourself.

  • Create an organization system and stick to it. Create a naming convention for your datasets, reports, notes, interviews, etc. Know exactly where you’re going to find that one report on that one thing from 2006. Add a version number (v1, v2, etc.) to your Excel files so you know which one is the most recent.

  • Keep a data diary. This is especially helpful if this isn’t the only reporting you’re working on. When you come back to a dataset a week later, you want to be able to remember how you got there and what to do next. And you’ll want it to check your work. My data diaries were extremely useful when I wrote a methodology.

  • Stay on top of data requests and be clear about what you want. If your request is denied, ask for the specific reasons why. It took six months to get data from the Maine Prescription Monitoring Program, which is housed under the Department of Health and Human Services. Finally, the program managers and their attorneys agreed to get on a call with me and our attorney. I wish I had requested that meeting earlier. It cleared up a lot of confusion and the data was in my hands a couple of weeks later. Sometimes you just need to be persistent and a polite but squeaky wheel.

  • Find resources on trauma-informed reporting. I made it clear with my sources they did not have to answer any question that made them uncomfortable. I told them we could take breaks if they wanted and I checked in as we talked. I wish I knew more before stepping into those interviews.

  • Ask your editors for some time away from daily duties at the beginning of your project. When I returned from the week of training that kicked off the Fellowship, I jumped right back into daily reporting. Your newsroom may be feeling your absence already but that extra time to make a plan and evaluate your next steps and expectations will save time in the future.

Set regular check-ins with your editors. If you, like me, work in a small newsroom, you’re going to need to juggle your daily beat with long-term projects. It’s important that your editors know what you’re up to all those hours away from your regular duties. Plus, they’re there to guide you and keep you on track.

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