One thousand people are getting killed in southwest Ohio yearly.
As journalists, we’re troubled that our aggressive coverage of the escalating death toll and costly side effects of opioids have been without a widespread public mobilization. We like to think we’re providing information that helps the community identify and solve problems, but this one eludes us.
That’s an admission on our part: We care about our communities. We believe 1,000 dead people every year cries out for understanding – and game-changing action.
Yet, it gets worse despite the best efforts of southwest Ohio journalists such as Chris Stewart at the Dayton Daily News, Angenette Levy at WKRC-TV in Cincinnati, and Ashley Bunton at AIM Media papers in Wilmington and Washington Court House.
Something needs to change, so we’ll begin with us.
News organizations across Ohio are setting aside competitive instincts to create collaborative work groups. We’re sponsoring community meetings to hear directly from anyone, no matter their perspective. Radio, TV and newspapers are sharing resources and stories with this question in mind: What do the people in our communities need most from us to understand and address this crisis?
Hence the name for the statewide media collaborative: Your Voice Ohio. More than 30 Ohio news organizations are sharing data and stories. We’re beginning with opioids and will let the public guide us from there.
The first experiment was in the Youngstown-Warren area last fall. This month, we begin in southwest Ohio where news outlets reach more than 4 million people from north of Springfield, east to Fayette County, south across the Ohio River and west to the border.
"At WYSO, we are looking forward to collaborating with more than 30 other Ohio news organizations on the Your Voice Ohio project. The opioid epidemic has impacted the lives of so many people across our region. We hope to learn more from community members about how the epidemic is affecting them or their loved ones, and we hope to gain new insights and ideas for how we can better cover this public-health crisis for our listeners," said WYSO Managing Editor Jess Mador.
Over the next few months, we’ll hold public meetings in Dayton, Middletown, suburban Cincinnati, Wilmington and Washington Court House. We’ll join citizens at the table to listen and participate. We want to come away with new ideas on how best to serve.
There’s an element to this project that will be noticeably different from much of what you have heard or read so far: Solutions. We want to change the tone by showing that this is not a hopeless crisis. There are, in fact, people, institutions and governments that are saving lives.
Next week, we’ll provide a narrative on who is making a difference in Ohio and how. We’ll also provide a list of solutions that are statistically proven to make a positive change. Are the solutions at work in your community? If not, should they be? And who should act?
We’ve already changed our perspective as the words to describe people struggling with opioids have become more complex. Most news organizations have stopped referring to victims as “addicts” unless the people describe themselves as such. The word “addiction” sometimes is replaced by “substance use disorder.”
Reasons? Scientific understanding of opioids suggests that the drug causes a change in brain chemistry that results in a disorder. The word “disorder” is more accurate, and also changes the thinking about the people at risk.
WYSO aired a powerful interview from the Dayton Women’s Correctional Institution that illustrates how lives are transformed by opioids. The reporter confesses personal emotion in this conversation with Alisha Federici, who suffered a back injury in gymnastics. She was given pain medication. She was warned of the dangers of opioids. She tried rehab three times, but the disorder ended in her death.
The needs for action are many. In the Youngstown-Warren community meetings, one man with a child said he had been clean for nearly a year, but he cannot survive unless someone has enough faith to hire him so that he can support his family. What are the solutions?
At one table, three women struggled with guilt as they told of their sons secretly using heroin, then dying of overdoses. Where can they find help, and how can they become helpers?
In another meeting, some expressed disgust. This is a result of poor choices and at great public cost, they said. There concern is the public cost.
The public conversations sponsored by your local news organizations begin with the assumption that communities are best equipped to identify and act on effective solutions. People will be asked whether opioids have affected their lives and how. They’ll be asked how the area would look if it were successfully turning the crisis around and what must be done to do so.
The meetings will occur the weeks of Feb. 11 and 18 and are open to the public. Because of limited seating, people are asked to sign up through the Eventbrite website.
The sessions are:
- Dayton – 2 to 4 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 11, Dayton Public Library, Main Branch - Community Room, 215 E 3rd St., Dayton, Ohio 45402
- Middletown – 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 12, Midpointe Library, 125 S. Broad St., Middletown.
- East Cincinnati (Madisonville) – 6:30-8:30 Tuesday, Feb. 13, Madisonville Recreation Center, 5320 Stewart Ave., Cincinnati.
- Wilmington/Clinton County – 1 to 3 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 18, Wilmington Municipal Building, 69 N. South St., Wilmington.
- Washington Court House/Fayette County – 6:30-8:30 p.m. Monday, Feb. 19, LaFayette Room, 133 S. Fayette St., Washington Court House.
Coming next week: Solutions that have worked in other communities and could be applied in your area.
The Your Voice Ohio project initially was funded in 2016 by a $175,000 grant from the John S. and James L. Knight Foundation, an organization that supports journalistic endeavors. That funding provided for unique polling for the media by the University of Akron Bliss Institute for Applied Politics and public deliberation sessions facilitated by the Jefferson Center, a non-profit, non-partisan engagement organization in St. Paul, Minn.
In 2017, the Democracy Fund, which supports media and public engagement in democracy, provided $250,000 to advance the work, and the Knight Foundation provided another $75,000.
The Jefferson Center continues to devise the public conversations and acts as the fiscal agent for the project. Doug Oplinger, a 46-year veteran of the Akron Beacon Journal who worked on three Pulitzer projects, manages the media work.