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How I sought to avoid the mistakes of the past in reporting on alcohol deaths in New Mexico

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How I sought to avoid the mistakes of the past in reporting on alcohol deaths in New Mexico

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(Photo by Adria Malcolm/New Mexico In Depth)
(Photo by Adria Malcolm/New Mexico In Depth)

I had come to the alcohol detox center in the western New Mexico town of Gallup, a little crossroads sandwiched between the Navajo Nation and Zuni Reservation, to learn about the trials and travails of people treated there. But in conversation with clinicians and patients I found we were often talking about the trauma of a whole people. I was reporting on alcohol’s impact on my home state, but I had begun to realize I was writing a story about the unequal treatment of Native Americans there, too.

A broad crisis marked by deep disparities 

What ultimately grew into a seven-part, 21,000-word series began with a single datapoint I’d come across the year prior showing that people in New Mexico die of alcohol-related causes at far higher rates than people in other states. 

When I mentioned this fact to family and friends, some asked to what extent it was due to elevated rates of alcoholism among Native people. It wasn’t an unnatural curiosity: there’s a common perception that Native people are more impacted by alcohol, often linked to the belief they have a genetic predisposition to drinking. 

But scientists who study the disparities, many of whom are also Native, told me they’d long fought against this mistaken notion. An individual’s propensity to develop an alcohol disorder is shaped by genetics but there’s never been evidence that Native people as a group are at higher risk. That myth has a way of shifting attention and responsibility for the problem towards Native people themselves, and away from the unequal treatment to which they’ve been subject. Worse, it seems to condemn them to these entrenched, ongoing disparities in perpetuity.

As an Anglo reporter little versed in this science and history, I had a lot of catching up to do. I spoke with people who had been working to curb alcohol’s harms for a generation, and I read news coverage going back 30 years, to when one of New Mexico’s major papers last devoted serious attention to alcohol in the state. Those reporters had focused on Gallup and I admired some of their deep reporting. But with the benefit of hindsight, I could also see how the lens they chose was too narrow to grasp that alcohol-related deaths are a statewide problem, and how they presented as deviant the people who they professed compassion for. Hoping to build on what they’d done, I spoke with staff and patients of treatment centers, rode along with public safety officers, and met with elected officials, too.

A balancing act

I was conscious of several challenges.

First, I wanted to present alcohol-related harms to Native people with enough context that readers would understand them as part of a statewide problem, which calls for collective responsibility. So up front, I clearly presented data showing Native people don’t alone account for New Mexico’s alcohol crisis. But I didn’t want to brush off Native people’s elevated death rate, either, since it reflects profound differences in wellbeing. A Navajo source who reviewed some of my conclusions encouraged me not to shy away from calling out the harms, which led me to sharpen my description of them. 

To better drive home the scale of alcohol-related deaths among working age Native men in Gallup’s enclosing county, I decided to hold it up to another public health crisis affecting a distinct but equally persecuted minority, the gun victimization of young black men in segregated and impoverished pockets of American cities. 

Second, I didn’t want to present Native people’s disparate alcohol-related death rate in a vacuum as if it were, as one source put it, solely “an Indian problem.” I wanted to show to the best of my abilities that it represented just one symptom of larger set of power relations towards Native people, of which other New Mexicans can’t wash their hands. Because the clinicians and cops and politicians I interviewed were so busy dealing with alcohol-related problems that they didn’t always step back and survey the big picture, I made an effort to include historians and advocates with broader and more radical views. My editors, one of whom lives in McKinley County, rightly pushed me to seek out Native voices to tell this part of the story, although I found that Anglos also had expertise to offer. And benefiting from the Native American Journalists Association’s best practice guidelines, I learned to identify Native sources by their tribe, by not describing them as “New Mexico’s” people, practices I will take forward.

Third, I wanted to report accurately on questions that I couldn’t unequivocally answer. That’s because the science explaining alcohol’s disparate impact on Native people is at best incomplete, which means evidence from journal articles and the accounts of experts were sometimes in conflict. One scientist, who had dedicated his career to the subject and been married nearly 50 years to a Native woman, said he believed there was a genetic component to the alcohol-related illnesses he observed among his relatives. But he could not disprove that it was the result of the unequal environments they lived in. After discussing his views with several other scientists, I decided to leave his statement, heartfelt but unsupported, out. In contrast, I saw how meaningful the sweat lodge ceremony was to patients at a Gallup treatment facility, and because Native clinicians had plausible explanations for its efficacy, even if it hadn’t been studied rigorously, I included it with all of that context.

Lastly, because outside reporters have long spotlighted Gallup and the Native people who live in and around it, and in the process fostered an impression the community has a reputation for alcohol use, I wanted to make sure I conveyed the strengths and assets of the community, too. This meant balanced reporting of what I saw — a town facing alcohol’s harms more openly and proactively than anywhere else I’d been in the state — while still being candid about the limits of what any single community can accomplish. 

From the very beginning, I asked people not only about the area’s problems but also about what was working, what they had learned, what gave them hope. I didn’t hide the reality that for all the town’s efforts, its outcomes had only gotten worse. And for a final “solutions” article, I returned to many of the experts I’d interviewed earlier to ask them how to close the disparities. None had a definitive answer, but all contributed good ideas.

The unequal burden of alcohol-related harms borne by Native people in New Mexico is unjust, and throughout the seven-part series, I alluded to and returned to those disparities. But the story of alcohol in New Mexico is also about the criminal justice system’s focus on driving while intoxicated and neglect of violence, about effective counseling techniques and medication that doctors fail to make available, and our eroding regulations on the sale and consumption of alcohol

So, my story about alcohol and Native people ended up being just one piece of a bigger puzzle.

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