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Evaluate the Cincinnati Enquirer’s decision to cover the heroin and opioid epidemic as a public health instead of a criminal issue.

December 2, 2021
Christopher R. Teeple

University of Dayton
Heroin-related overdose deaths have more than quadrupled since 2010, with nearly 13,000 people dying nationwide in 2015 alone. Some of the greatest increases have occurred in women, the privately insured, and people with higher incomes—demographic groups with historically low rates of heroin use (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention 2017). In response, the CDC added overdose prevention to its list of top public health challenges, and President Donald Trump created the Commission on Combating Drug Addiction and the Opioid Crisis to study “ways to combat and treat the scourge of drug abuse, addiction and the opioid crisis” (The White House 2017). This designation focused on raising national awareness about the severity of the problem but stopped short of providing additional funding for treatment and research about the opioid crisis.
News media also have responded with new initiatives. Specifically, the Cincinnati Enquirer, a daily newspaper covering Cincinnati and its Northern Kentucky suburbs, established the nation’s first heroin beat in January 2016. While the heroin and opioid epidemic is a national problem, Ohio—and, more specifically, Southwestern Ohio—is considered its epicenter. Heroin is thought to be the most accessible drug in Ohio (Ohio State Bar Association 2017), which leads the nation in both opioid and heroin overdose deaths (Kaiser Family Foundation 2014).
Terry DeMio, the Enquirer reporter who heads the heroin beat, said in an interview with the author that the Enquirer really is just responding to the community’s need for information:
There’s a recognition that, not only is this a crisis, it’s a crisis that, even now, is not well understood. I have easily more than 100 and probably well over 100 individuals talking to me, reading my work, people 306who have families who are addicted or people who are in recovery. In Northern Kentucky, which is where I started, one in three people knows someone addicted to heroin. So, these are our neighbors, and we want to be responsive to our community’s needs.
DeMio covers the heroin and opioid epidemic from a public health angle, not as a crime beat. She often discusses issues such as the need for first responders to carry naloxone, a drug that can block an opioid overdose; medication-assisted instead of abstinence-based treatment; and needle exchanges to help prevent HIV and Hepatitis C in both addicts and non-addicts who can accidentally step on improperly discarded needles. DeMio wants her reporting to help provide solutions to a community that is facing a public health crisis:
I think the urgency is pretty obvious as far as the fact that this is a public health crisis. I mean, we want to stop the dying and then turn it around. That’s my primary focus, which is a public health issue.
In DeMio’s coverage, she routinely talks to a wide variety of sources, including addicts and their families, doctors and healthcare experts, police officers, and local and state government officials. She said the key to doing this kind of beat is credibility and trust:
They have to trust you and understand that you care. I think through the work of doing this it shows that we as a newspaper care and that I personally care. I report objectively by, just like any reporter, introducing both sides, being fact based, telling a story which shows the compassion and hopefully gives people clarity about what this really is like for someone to go through. But I don’t hesitate to provide resources to people.
The Enquirer coverage gained widespread national attention when it published “Seven days of heroin: This is what an epidemic looks like” on Sept. 10, 2017. The 20-page special section, which was supplemented with additional online content, included contributions from more than 60 reporters, photographers, and videographers from the Enquirer and colleagues from 10 other news sites affiliated with the Media Network of Central Ohio. (Versions of “Seven days of heroin” appeared in those newspapers as well.) The special section focused on one week in July, a week that included 18 deaths, at least 180 overdoses, more than 200 heroin users in jail, and 15 babies born with heroin-related medical problems. The full story can be found at https://www.cincinnati.com/pages/interactives/seven-days-of-heroin-epidemic-cincinnati/.
307Micro Issues
1. Evaluate the Cincinnati Enquirer’s decision to cover the heroin and opioid epidemic as a public health instead of a criminal issue.
2. How might the Enquirer’s reporting influence how the community understands and addresses the heroin and opioid epidemic?
3. How can a newspaper cover the heroin and opioid epidemic consistently without sensationalizing coverage or publishing “addiction porn”?
Midrange Issues
1. The Enquirer, like many medium-market newspapers, has made tough budget decisions, including newsroom layoffs and shuttering beats. How should a newspaper balance necessary beats (crime and courts, education, etc.) with important community issues in a time of shrinking newsroom budgets?
2. How should a reporter balance objective reporting with showing compassion and sharing treatment and other resources with sources and their families?
3. This ambitious series was labeled as being financially sponsored by a local hospital. Could this funding in any way have affected the coverage?
Macro Issues
1. In Cincinnati and Northern Kentucky, the majority of heroin and opioid users and overdose victims are middle-class, suburban whites. How would you respond to criticism that news organizations and other institutions began treating heroin and opioid as a disease instead of a crime once the racial and class demographics changed?
2. Projects such as these often win prizes and even sabbaticals for their authors. Prizes help quality storytelling get recognized, but they have also been the occasion for scandal. On balance, are awards good for the profession?
3. How might the Enquirer’s coverage serve as a template for other news organizations that want to start doing the same type of beat coverage in their communities?
You will be writing case studies of ethical dilemmas. You will not just write down your “thoughts” or “feelings” about the situation; you will use the ethical models and concepts we have discussed in class. These case studies are similar to what you would experience in law school or business school where you study case after case to see how the principles are applied in various ways. It may seem tedious as you start, but as you work through the process, you will get faster and the ethical reasoning will become more natural. As we learn more, you will increase the tools at your disposal to analyze different situations.
Case studies follow this format:
Student name
Comms 304 section #
Case study reference, including number (textbook or another source). See the examples or template.
A brief summary of the case (try to keep it to a few sentences). Make sure you identify the ethical issue you are analyzing. There are lots of possible ethical issues in each case, so you need to explain which one you are examining.
Your analysis of that ethical issue using ethical models and moral reasoning.
Your conclusion. Is it ethical or not?
The case studies will be graded on your application of ethical principles—not if you got the answer “right” or “wrong”—and the quality of writing. You must use an ethical model, a moral theory, and/or cite at least one philosopher in your reasoning in order to get credit for your case study. If two students turned in equally well-written, ethically-reasoned cases, but came to opposite or different conclusions, they would each get the same grade.
Case studies are short—about a page or two. If you want to write more, you can. The important thing is to apply the ethical principles. Take the space you need to do that. Sometimes you will be told which model to use; other times you can choose and include reasoning from your personal ethical statement.
Here are some examples of case studies for you to view:
Case Study example 1 Download Case Study example 1
Case Study example 2

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