Don’t ignore reporting on deaths from overdoses

Nov 1, 2016

By Ken Blum
Black Ink

A question. If a person in your community died for any of the following reasons, would you report how it happened, including the name of the deceased?

1. Auto accident

2. Shooting

3. Drunk driving

4. Assault

5. Domestic violence

6. Drowning

7. Farm accident

8. Fire

9. Flood

10. Drug overdose

Likely, the answers are easy, until we get to No. 10. Too many hometown newspapers hesitate to report deaths involving illegal opioids unless those deaths occurred in highly unusual circumstances.

Too often, the only report of an OD death is a submitted obit that avoids the cause. “Died unexpectedly” is the most common statement, usually for deceased in the 16-35 age range. You see a lot of “died unexpectedlies” in community newspapers these days.

It’s not that the overall problem hasn’t been reported. It is that the quantity and quality of the reporting in no way matches the scope of the crisis in this country—not drug use, mind you, but overdose deaths from lethal and illegal drugs, particularly the most demonic and deadly of all, heroin and its monstrous new cousin, often unimaginably 50 times more potent than pure heroin—fentanyl.

OD deaths are rampant and everywhere and anywhere.

Take my county—Wayne County, OH. It’s a progressive county with a nice mix of agriculture and industry. Population 114,520. Fine schools and colleges. Solid middle to upper middle class.

In 2015, there were 20 overdose deaths linked to heroin and/or fentanyl in my county. Twenty! There were eight deaths in the county that year from traffic accidents.

And there would have been many more if law enforcement agencies and fire departments did not have access to Narcan™, a nasally administered drug that reverses the effects of opiates. In Wooster, the county seat, the fire department administered Narcan™ 40 times in 2015.

There’s a story behind every one of these deaths.

For example, a few miles away from my home, a woman died of a heroin overdose supplied by the man who had reported her as unresponsive. Later, it was learned she gave birth to a baby at the home only hours before she was rushed to the hospital. The dead child had been placed in a cardboard box found in a bathtub.

Hard to write or read about, but too important and tragic to ignore.

The OD epidemic from illegal drugs is everywhere and anywhere in the U.S., from the ghettos of Detroit to the villages of Connecticut to the farm towns of Nebraska.

The most recent totals available are from 2014, when 47,055 drug overdose deaths occurred in the U.S., 28,647 from illegal opioid overdoses. That’s 14.7 per 100,000 persons in the country.

Let’s put that figure into perspective:

• Let’s say your paper covers a small rural county of 20,000. You can expect three to four overdose deaths this year.

• America’s total involvement in the Vietnam War lasted from 1965 to 1975, 10 years. During the longest war in our history, there were approximately 58,000 Americans killed in action and 2,000 missing in action, for a total of 60,000. Again, compare that to American OD deaths for just one year—47,055.

• U.S. traffic deaths in 2014—32,675. Drug overdose deaths – 47,055.

• Breast cancer claimed about 40,000 people in 2014. Most areas in the country—rightly so—host events supporting the fight against the disease, mainly the Relay for Life campaigns. Again, these efforts are worthy and needed.

Still, where are the relays for the 47,000-plus dead from drug overdoses?

It’s not like the days when heroin overdose deaths were the plight of desperate people living in desperate circumstances.

Today, no economic or social class, race, creed or age group is immune.

It’s so easy to get hooked. Take a dose as an experiment. Experience a high like you never imagined. Take another dose in a search for a repeat of that state of euphoria. And another. You’re hooked.

You may get off of it after a few hellish weeks. But the longing is still there. You give in. Buy the same dose from a dealer, although there’s no way to be sure what dose you’re buying, or maybe it’s fentanyl. Oops—the same dose you had been taking before now constitutes an overdose because you’ve been off the stuff for a while.

You’re dead.

Why don’t these people—the ones who may well be your friends, your neighbors, your parents, your children—just go to rehab and get off the stuff?

Try this—don’t drink anything for a few hot days. Then try to stay away from a glass of water.

It’s even worse for a heroin addict who, without a fix, goes through nausea, sweating, shaking and muscle spasms.

So let’s get back to the questions at the beginning of this piece.

Why do so many community newspapers fail to report overdose deaths from illegal drugs?

My guess is the stigma associated with drugs like heroin, and law enforcement’s and the newspaper’s sensitivity to the feelings of the family of a person who died from overdosing on the most stigmatized drug of all.

Or, law enforcement agencies may not release the obvious cause of the death as a heroin overdose, instead saying the cause of death is “undetermined.” Then it can take weeks or months before an autopsy report is available, if you can get hold of it at all.

Or, the overdose death may be from a prescription opioid drug such as OxyContin®, which can be obtained legally. This scenario may be unreportable.

But for an obvious death caused by a clearly illegal and deadly drug such as heroin or fentanyl, what good does hiding the incident, cause or name of the victim do? (Note: When the cause is obvious but not yet confirmed by an autopsy, it can still be reported, including the victim’s name, as a “suspected heroin overdose.”)

Does it inform readers about the human tragedy of an epidemic that’s right under their noses, happening to people they know and respect?

Does it alert readers to the danger in their midst—not only the danger of taking opioids, but also the danger of the crimes associated with the culture of drug abuse, such as break-ins, robberies and any one of a hundred crimes used to obtain the money to make a buy?

Does it help raise the community’s awareness of drug dealers in its midst, and encourage citizens to report suspicious people to law enforcement?

And is it a violation of the fundamental ethics of journalism? A crime has been committed in that someone sold the illegal drug—again, heroin or fentanyl—to the victim, and possession in itself is a crime; there has been an investigation by law enforcement, and the most ominous result of all for that crime has occurred—a tragic death in your town.

How can you not report it, including the name of the victim? © Ken Blum 2016


Ken Blum is the publisher of Butterfly Publications, an advising/speaking/publishing business dedicated to improving the profitability and quality of community newspapers. He puts out a monthly free e-mail newsletter titled Black Inklings. It features nuts-and-bolts ideas to improve revenue and profits at hometown papers. To subscribe to the newsletter or contact Ken, email him at or at 330-682-3416.