How the Palm Beach Post counted 216 overdosed dead, one by one

The Palm Beach Post investigative team was working on a series of stories about the "sober home" industry when it became clear that another story was unfolding right in front of them.

The county is an epicenter of alcohol recovery, with wealthy people flying in and beginning treatment in so-called "sober homes," investigative reporter Pat Beall told Poynter. Reporters at The Post wanted to know how many people die annually in these homes and were surprised to learn nobody keeps a running tally of overdoses.

So, reporters decided to keep track. Then, they found something that stunned everyone. Hundreds of people were dying in Palm Beach County, Florida from heroin or fentanyl overdoses. The team documented 216 overdose deaths in 2015 alone.

"We wanted the most conservative number, one we could prove," Beall said. "I love numbers."

There is nothing to love about the numbers they found, or the numbers the CDC released last week. Nearly 10,000 deaths in America were attributed to synthetic opioids in 2015, a 73 percent increase over the previous year. Prescription opioid deaths rose 4 percent in 2015, to 17,536. Heroin deaths rose a stunning 23 percent in 2015. The CDC said 12,990 people died in the U.S. from heroin last year.

It's hard to put a human face on a national crisis that's claiming thousands of lives. So the Palm Beach Post decided to start small, with its home county, said Joel Engelhardt, an investigative reporter and editor at The Palm Beach Post.

"From the beginning, we imaged a front page that showed the faces, all of the faces, of the 216 people who died in one year," Engelhardt said.

Reporters began calling families of the dead to gather photos, life histories and to try to understand what led to each death. The families were scattered across 12 states. The Post found family members of 60 percent of the dead. Most of the families supported the paper publishing their loved one's name. A dozen or so families strongly objected.

"When we started I thought 90 percent would oppose it," Engelhardt said. "I understand why they would oppose it. The stigma of heroin deaths is real, and the families who opposed us said we didn't have the right to subject them to that stigma. But we felt that what we were doing was something to overcome the stigma."

And unless the public could see the faces, the story wouldn't command the public's attention. So, they got to work. Each week, they would assemble in what they called the "white room," a room lined with whiteboards. Then, they began putting photos of overdose victims on the walls.

Those photos became the front page of the Nov. 20 newspaper edition and lives online as an interactive display. Readers can click on each headshot and read the associated bio.

Beall keeps the double-truck display on her cubicle wall, a reminder of how — more than once in the last year — talking with sorrowful families and friends made her cry.

"I remember very distinctly one of the stories that took my breath away," Beall said. "It was the story of Casey McRae. We got a photo from Facebook where she is staring into the camera smiling. Her little girl was smiling. I was looking at this happy photo while I was also reading the police report of how she died."

The photos that told Casey's life and death included an image of her 4-year-old daughter peering over the side of a casket, saying goodbye to the mother who died of a heroin overdose.

The stories became so personal that the reporters would call the overdose victims by name. "When somebody mentioned 'Brian's family' or 'Paul" we all knew who we were talking about. It was that personal," Beall said. "Sometimes I would look at those pictures, put my hand on the whiteboard and just think, 'this is what we are supposed to be doing."

The whole I-team dedicated itself to this project, scouring police and property records, social media and medical examiner reports. Reporters including Beall, Joe Capozzi, Lawrence Mower and data reporter Mike Stucka all helped piece together the data and individual biographies.

Reporter Christine Stapleton worked on the science of addiction and health reporter John Pacenti explored why people were dying. Editors including Engelhardt and Holly Baltz had the unenviable job of talking repeatedly with families who objected to the project.

In the weeks that followed, public officials have taken notice. A Palm Beach County Commissioner is pressing for action on 20 steps to address the problems the paper uncovered.

The Commissioner proposes making Naloxone, a drug that reverses opioid effects, available to all first responders, and the commissioner wants new treatment options for poor people. Many of the recommendations were straight out of the reporting the Post did traveling to other communities that were trying to combat the opioid epidemic.

"You can't just throw people into despair and sorrow," Beall said. "Our local Congresswoman, Lois Frankel, held a meeting last week to discuss the story. The front page was held up — literally — by the local state attorney when he was making a presentation to the local state legislative delegation about the need for funding and treatment."

Sunday, the paper will keep the pressure on local and state governments to act. The Post plans to publish the story of how the opioid epidemic is flooding Florida hospitals and emergency rooms. The Post reports, "In Florida in 2010, a person with heroin poisoning showed up at a hospital emergency room about every two days. In late 2015, it was one every 90 minutes."

Engelhardt had just returned from a week away from computer screens covered with heroin overdose stories when Poynter caught up with him.

"It was good to get away from it. I needed to," he said.

Beall confessed the stories have taken a toll on the team and briefly indulged in a brief investigative reporter's reverie.

"I look forward to doing a nice business fraud story with lots of soothing numbers," she said.

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    Al Tompkins

    Al Tompkins is The Poynter Institute’s senior faculty for broadcasting and online. He has taught thousands of journalists, journalism students and educators in newsrooms around the world.

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