*Editor’s Note: This article is part of the “Story Behind the Story” series featuring first place 2018 AAEA Communication award winners.
The idea for our series on rural opioid addiction began with our editorial staff recognizing that one of the underserved — and equally affected — demographics for addition was Rural America.
We knew rural people struggled with opioids, but it seemed like most of the press at the time was covering the issue from urban places, and very few had interviewed people in farm towns.
The issue was also brought to our attention in January 2016, when former U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack held a press conference in Columbus to talk about rural poverty in southern Ohio and Appalachia, as well as opioid addiction.
Vilsack shared the story of how his own mother struggled with drug and alcohol abuse. He said that poverty and addiction were serious issues for rural Ohio, and that rural people were just as susceptible — sometimes even more so.
We wrote the story to show how wide-reaching addiction really is, for men and women, children and people of all races and economic backgrounds.
Although we focused on rural counties, we interviewed a wide range of sources, some who were never quoted, so that we could get a good representation of the issue.
The hard part was realizing that not everyone in recovery makes it, including the source of one of our feature stories, who died just weeks before publication and forced us to do more reporting and a major rewrite at deadline. It was also hard to hear from parents and community leaders who have tried to help a son or daughter, who has overdosed not once or twice — but many times.
The story was published as a three-week series in November 2017 in our weekly newspaper, Farm and Dairy. We also designed a landing page on our website, here, where we included a timeline of opioid addiction, and web-exclusive videos and sound bites.
We put all of this together with an editorial staff of just three reporters and two editors.
The series generated a lot of feedback on social media, and in conversations with our readers. We learned about our own personal lack of awareness, and worked very hard to use language that wouldn’t perpetuate a stigma or a bias.
We also learned that addiction knows no boundaries. It’s a destroyer of families and communities and continues to be one of our generation’s biggest challenges. We also learned that people need help, repeatedly, and that in rural America, getting help can sometimes be more difficult than in urban places.
There is a shortage of service providers, more physical distance between providers, and, coupled with rural poverty, the costs can sometimes be prohibitive. We also learned that people want help — that they want to get clean and live productive lives. We hope we were able to reach people who needed reached, with the information and helplines they needed, and also the sympathy and compassion that people need.