Mural of a tree painted on a wall in a drug addiction treatment center

A tree is painted on the wall at Recovery Point, a drug treatment center in Charleston, West Virginia. Patients collected autumn leaves and wrote gratitude notes on them.

EDITOR’S NOTE: This is one of five posts from the 2022 Power of Narrative conference at Boston University. Read Ellen Barry on first-person narratives, Lizzie Johnson on deadline narratives and Debbie Cenziper on investigative narratives.

A staple of journalism is coverage of the realities that challenge us as humans and societies. Among the most challenging: drug addiction. Narrative journalists who wade into that world must balance data with emotion, skepticism with empathy and detachment with involvement.

Two journalists who have spent years navigating that territory shared tips in a keynote conversation at the 2022 Power of Narrative conference hosted by Boston University.

Martha Bebinger covers healthcare, addiction, climate change, and other social issues at WBUR. Her work has been recognized with numerous regional and national awards, she was a 2010 Nieman Fellow.

Beth Macy is a Virginia-based journalist and New York Times-bestselling author of “DOPESICK: Dealers, Doctors, and the Drug Company that Addicted America,” which was made into a miniseries on Hulu. A follow-up book, “Raising Lazarus,” is due out later this year. She also was a 2010 Nieman Fellow.

Reporting for change

Reporter and author Beth Macy

Beth Macy

Giving voice to someone’s story can be a powerful facilitator of change. There is still an 88% treatment gap for Americans struggling with addiction, Macy said, meaning only 12% of those who want treatment can actually get it. In their work, Macy and Bebinger try to bring these stories to the forefront of public conversation.

“I still have this hope that telling these stories will inspire change everywhere, not in just the blue states and the blue cities, but in some of the places where it’s actually where (untreated addiction) began and where it still persists,” Macy said. “If you can make change in that space, you can make change everywhere.”

In stories about addiction, data is useful, but you can really reach people by tapping into emotion. Finding that connection in even the most difficult places can spark sweeping change.

Interviewing with clarity and empathy

WBUR reporter Martha Bebinger

Martha Bebinger

Covering addiction presents specific interviewing challenges. When working with story subjects who may be using drugs, Bebinger said she always checks their physical symptoms first to gauge whether they are able to consent to an interview.

“Are they clear enough, in this moment, to make the choice?” Bebinger said.

As she goes forward, Bebinger begins with questions she may not need the answers to before getting to the difficult questions. It is extremely important to continually gauge an interviewee’s mental clarity to guard against the possiblity of retraumatizing them, she said.

Sensitive language

Language, from attribution to descriptions, also needs to be considered in stories covering addiction. Bebinger identifies story subjects by their first names only to respect their privacy and guard their safety. Macy chooses words carefully, sacrificing the flow of a sentence for more respectful, sensitive reporting. For example, she refers to “people who use drugs” and sometimes “drug users” as opposed to “addicts.”

Both journalists underscored the the importance of avoiding stereotypes and labels that stigmatizing people.

“Their drug use is a piece of their life,” Bebinger said. “It may, in that moment, be defining their lives, but it does not define them. Look for what defines them to get beneath the stigma.” Macy had someone give a “sensitivity read” of her book to flag problematic language and now makes that a regular part of her reporting and writing process.

Detached observer or compassionate participant?

The involvement of immersion reporters in the lives of those they write about can be unpredictable and variable. Should they simply document situations, or step in to try to help?

Bebinger said she operates in the role of the observer, but will intervene in a crisis. For example, she has bought groceries for some story subjects and administered Narcan when someone one overdosing on opioids.

“I think reporters have to remember that we bring a sort of an emotional framework or lens to stories,” Bebinger said. “When you’re reporting on something like addiction, you want to know what your own is.”

Macy ends to get very close to the subjects in her stories, even visiting the morgue with the mother of one of her subjects to identify their body. “I think you have to be a human being first,” she said, noting that she is transparent in her writing about her relationships and involvement.

The issue is a complex one, and opinions vary from reporter to reporter. However, Macy and Bebinger offer their own perspectives, centered on giving a complete story while also ensuring safety for both the reporter and the subjects.

You can watch the full keynote address here.


Samuel Thomas is an undergraduate journalism and psychology student at Boston University. An avid lover of music, film, and television, he aspires to cover the entertainment industry.

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