Two years ago, the Cincinnati Enquirer started covering heroin as a beat. Today, it won a Pulitzer for it.
Terry DeMio and Dan Horn talked about the idea for two years — how could they show people what heroin was really doing to their community? Could they immerse themselves for 72 hours? A week?
“We didn’t know, but we felt like for a couple years that this was so immersed in our community and that people weren’t seeing it,” said the Cincinnati Enquirer’s Terry DeMio. “They get bits and pieces. Fragments.”
“We wanted people to see what we were seeing,” Horn said. “I think a lot of people have stopped noticing.”
Eventually, they settled on a week — and 60 reporters, photographers and videographers helped create “Seven Days of Heroin.” The project shows readers what a typical week is like for people impacted by the heroin epidemic and includes a documentary.
On Monday, staff won the local reporting Pulitzer Prize for that work.
As a general assignment reporter, DeMio started covering heroin five years ago. She started covering it as a beat in 2016. Peter Bhatia, then the Enquirer's editor, created that beat, and when he was approached with the idea for the series, he said go for it.
The series is a testament to good reporters, Horn said, but also to editors who are willing to listen to them. Storytelling editor Amy Wilson edited the project. It matters not just for what it reveals, she said, but also for what it shows local newsrooms are capable of.
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Erin Willis and Chad Painter studied the Enquirer's coverage for the journal Health Communication and found “it could serve as a model for other news organizations.”
Framing heroin use as a public health issue rather than a crime changes the type of discussion the public can have regarding the solution. Additionally, educating readers as to the causes of opioid addiction and the accessibility of heroin in local communities, as well as the social determinants that lead to risky behaviors, will only equip them to understand and better advocate prevention and treatment to combat the increasing epidemic.
Last year, the Charleston (West Virginia) Gazette Mail’s Eric Eyre won a Pulitzer for investigative reporting for his coverage of the pharmaceutical industry and the opioid crisis.
There is now a greater awareness of the heroin epidemic, DeMio said. But she thinks a huge number of people are still going untreated, and it’s still a big stigma.
Winning a Pulitzer has been overwhelming, she said, “but I think our local community really did benefit from this, and I think that was our initial and steadfast goal.”