About 50 people gathered last week in a cozy community hall in Struthers, a once thriving steel town along the Mahoning River outside of Youngstown.
A simulated fire in the electric fireplace gave off a warm glow on one of the first chilly nights of the season. Sandwiches were on a long table and soft drinks in tubs on the floor.
With five people assigned to each round table, WKSU reporter Tim Ruddell, slid his usual amiable self into one of the last empty chairs. A broadcast veteran returning to a town where he once served as a news director, he was among journalists from three other news outlets sponsoring the event.
The first question for everyone: Describe the opioid crisis in your community.
The room grew quiet, then murmurs.
In the Mahoning Valley, more than 700 have died of opioid overdoses since 2010. In Ohio, more than 16,000.
Ruddell’s smile melted away.
The first woman introduced herself as the mother of a child who had died of an overdose. The second said the same. And the third. The fourth person was recovering from heroin addiction, terrified of the same fate.
Often, Ruddell explained afterward, reporters talk to experts who are detached from the emotion of an issue.
“Clearly, the very idea of this,” he said, “was too tragic to take a detached view. These people weren’t here to explain from a professional perspective, these were three women who lost their kids.”
Stories of heartbreak and courage
Ruddell wasn’t the only journalist to feel thrust into painful life experiences. Over the course of three nights, 18 journalists were equally moved by stories of heartbreak, courage, perseverance, service, love and hope as about 100 people gathered .
Folks unfamiliar with one another shed tears and shared hugs as the nights wore on.
The meetings occurred in Youngstown, Warren and Struthers, and each was unique. Each time, participants were energized to do something, and they asked the news outlets sponsoring the events: What’s next?
They told the journalists: Lead, provide answers and, most importantly, tell us how people are breaking the chains of addiction. In other words, give them hope.
Over the next several weeks, those journalists from WKSU, the Warren Tribune Chronicle, The Vindicator of Youngstown and WFMJ-TV will split up the work, beginning with the scores of questions written on blue note cards by those who attended.
One question was this:
Q. What will you (media) do with the information collected? What is YOUR next step?
A. All the notes have been transcribed and will be shared with the public, beginning with the questions on blue cards. We’ll produce stories based on those notes.
One of our goals is to energize individuals and organizations to act. This project is part of a larger Your Voice Ohio, an organization of news outlets sharing what they learn about community efforts to curb the crisis. And speaking of energy, it was said at one community meeting that the Mahoning Valley will know it has turned the corner if the Covelli convention center can be filled with people celebrating what they and their communities have accomplished.
Here are the rest of the questions we received last week. Some have been answered, others will be answered over time.
Q. Where can families and individuals struggling with addiction turn, day or night, to get immediate help?
A. Mahoning and Trumbull counties have information sheets on the web that contain sites and phone numbers to call for help.
Q. Why do media continue to run photos of needles and needles in arms. Don’t you know that’s a trigger to someone trying to recover?
A. This shows why these meetings are important. That idea had not occurred to many of us as we attempt to reflect life in the community. We will now consider this concern in our daily news decisions and share with the statewide media group. Here’s something you can do to help: Think about the words you use. We are. Is a drug-dependent person an addict, a person with an addiction, a person with a dependency, or person with an illness, or maybe a victim? Words matter.
Q. What are good examples of policies and programs that are working in other communities?
A. The news outlets on Oct. 8 published a list of effective programs at work in other communities. That list will be updated as more become available. Check the list and consider whether any of them should be duplicated in the Mahoning Valley.
Some include: Needle exchanges, drug courts, data-gathering to pinpoint opioid hotspots, quick-response teams, jail counseling.
Q. What have media done in other communities that has been effective?
A. That’s a question for you. If you see a news media effort that you believe advances the fight against opioids, let us know.
1. What are lawmakers doing?
2. What is marijuana’s role in addiction and the opioid epidemic?
3. Suboxone, good or bad?
4. How do we get more counselors who have personal experiences with addiction and know the pain of recovery?
5. How do we get people with drug-related convictions back into the work force so that their recovery can be a success?
6. Which schools have drug education, participate in key programs, such as D.A.R.E., Red Ribbon and January talk. Help us: Tell us what your school does. Here’s one example.
7. What types of interdictions are courts and law enforcement doing to cut down or eliminate easy flow of drugs.
8. Report that this is a chronic relapsing brain disease, not a moral failing. Change community attitude from its current lack of compassion.
9. Why do our Trumbull County sheriff, prosecutor and judges not want to look into treatment programs that are working in other parts of the country? Combine with this question: Why do our local news outlets not question local officials for not trying new ideas?
10. Can the medical community become more involved?
11. Can there be a law that private insurance pay for 30-day treatment like Pennsylvania?
12. Who is providing long-term recovery in the area?
13. What steps will community officials take to fix the problem of 24/7 assistance?
14. What are we going to do to make changes and keep these forums?
15. How do we get more community and business involved to help in the crisis?
16. What is the plan to help families of those dependent on drugs?
17. Give us a media report that lists what the people say they want the media to report on
18. Why aren’t drug dealers prosecuted?
19. Why is prosecuting drug dealers for OD deaths cost prohibitive?
20. What are the costs of addiction v.s prevention?
21. Where are the stories of recovering addicts who are positively impacting the community?