[Noozhawk’s note: This article is part of Day 12 in Noozhawk’s 12-day, six-week special investigative series, Prescription for Abuse. Related links are below.]
It all started with toxicology reports from the Santa Barbara County Coroner’s Office.
“I pulled the overdose numbers for the first time a year and a half ago and was shocked at what I saw,” Noozhawk staff writer Lara Cooper said. “Dozens of prescription drugs were listed next to many of the people who had died.
“After we did the math, we saw that this type of death had tripled from 2008 to 2009. I’d had no idea until that point that things were that bad.”
Noozhawk publisher Bill Macfadyen agreed.
“We figured the local patterns would be consistent with escalating national trends, but we didn’t know how pervasive prescription drug abuse was,” he said. “As a parent of young adults, it was terribly disturbing.”
Cooper was researching the issue of prescription medications long before Noozhawk was invited by USC’s Annenberg School for Communication & Journalism to apply for a California Endowment Health Journalism Fellowship offered in partnership with San Francisco State University’s Renaissance Journalism Center.
“The thing that really stuck out to me was the pure number of people who accidentally overdosed from prescription drugs and drugs in general,” Noozhawk staff writer Giana Magnoli said. “I had no idea. They get hundreds of cases a year.”
The information became the foundation for Noozhawk’s fellowship application and, six months later, its Prescription for Abuse series.
Cooper and Magnoli were the lead reporters on the project, which made its debut six weeks ago. They were assisted by managing editor Michelle Nelson; reporters Alex Kacik and Sonia Fernandez; interns Kristin Crosier, Jessica Ferguson, Tim Fucci, Kristen Gowdy, Jessica Haro, Daniel Langhorne, Alexa Shapiro, Sam Skopp, Erin Stone and Sarah Webb; photographers Garrett Geyer and Nick St. Oegger; and Web development staffers Will Macfadyen and Edgar Oliveira.
“She was just a mom with three kids, and her family was absolutely torn apart by her drug addiction,” Cooper said of the woman, who spoke with Noozhawk on the condition that her last name not be used.
“After her interview, I realized, ‘This can happen to absolutely anyone.’ I think that was a kind of breakthrough moment for me, and, hopefully, readers picked up on that, too.”
Macfadyen said Noozhawk wanted to take advantage of its fellowship opportunity with a comprehensive project that could showcase the 4-year-old company’s journalism skills and professionalism.
“Our intention was to establish a baseline for where Santa Barbara is with respect to this problem, so we can use it as a reference point in the future and perhaps measure how successful we are at changing the impacts,” he said. “We fulfilled that mission. The larger issue of public awareness and education is ongoing, however.”
Society’s seemingly casual attitude toward drug use and an inconsistent response are part of the problem, Macfadyen said.
“We as parents have a responsibility to teach our children about the risks and danger and to hold them, and ourselves, accountable,” he said. “If we’re nonchalant or exhibit a tolerance about drug use, we’ve lost our moral authority on the issue — and just about any teenager is going to run with that.
“We need to do a much better job with prevention, and probably at an even younger age.”
Another glaring shortcoming Noozhawk discovered is the monitoring and discipline of physicians who overprescribe or fraudulently prescribe.
“From what we could find, there isn’t any,” Macfadyen said. “It’s appalling that the industry doesn’t police itself.”
Education is key to prevention efforts and Magnoli said she hopes the public can use Noozhawk’s project to be more open about prescription drug abuse.
“I think we’ve raised some awareness and I hope that continues to expand,” Cooper said. “I’m hoping that some public forums this winter will broaden that audience beyond the readers who come to our site.”
Macfadyen said Noozhawk likes to tackle more complex community issues in collaboration with other organizations and stakeholders.
“We are very appreciative of the opportunity that USC’s Annenberg School gave us with this project,” he said. “What we were attempting to do was quite a stretch for our small and youthful staff, but we were paired with remarkable journalists as advisers who challenged us to aim higher than we thought possible and to view the issues from angles we just didn’t know existed. I think we made Annenberg proud.”