By Chris Adams

For Jason Cherkis of The Huffington Post, one of his earliest lessons in reporting on the nation’s opioid epidemic was understanding how little he really knew about addiction.

Author of a path-breaking set of stories called “Dying To Be Free,” Cherkis struggled to write what he thought would be two simple paragraphs about why people got hooked on opioids such as heroin and  prescription painkillers. “I kept writing ‘It’s a brain disease,’ ” he said. “But what does that even mean?”

In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Cherkis and two other reporters who have done pivotal reporting on the opioid epidemic talked about their roadblocks and successes in documenting their stories:

  • Cherkis’ stories relied on tracking down the families of nearly 75 people who died of opioid overdoses in one area of Kentucky. He used extensive courthouse, coroner and other records to show how they struggled – and generally failed – to get effective treatment.
  • Marcela Gaviria, a producer for FRONTLINE, spent months tracking and documenting the stories of people who had moved from legitimately acquired prescription opioids, to illegally manipulating the system to get more prescription doses, to moving into illegal heroin. Her two-hour special, “Chasing Heroin,” ran in early 2016, and Gaviria talked about the difficulties of verifying the stories of the opioid users she interviewed.
  • Maia Szalavitz talked about the science of addiction and how addiction needs to be treated as a medical
    issue, not a criminal one – a focus in her recent book, “Unbroken Brain.” She also gave the journalists tips on the language to use in stories – avoiding words such as “addicts,” for example, which can be stigmatizing, in favor of “people who have addictive diseases.”