Elana Gordon, public health reporter for WHYY The Pulse, and Morgan Zalot, formerly of NBC 10 and reporter for the station’s Generation Addicted piece, discussed the challenges of reporting on addiction as the last class speakers for the semester. Both Gordon and Zalot noted the necessity of adding context to sensitive circumstances, using their narratives to respect language associated with addiction, and how storytelling must highlight the humanity of those willing to share their stories.
Gordon, who has a background in public health work, described the necessity of using research and medical perspectives in reporting on addiction. She also spoke about her medium, radio, and how it inherently adds a human element to her reporting through the narrative aspect. It’s this humanity, Gordon noted, that breaks through headlines and shatters commonly-held negative perspectives on addiction and the people who live with the illness. Gordon also mentioned the danger of oversimplification, acknowledging that while it is easy to get pulled into the wormhole of larger problems rooted in the pharmaceutical, criminal justice, or policy-making sectors that influence the opioid crisis in different ways, our job as journalists is to synthesize this information for larger audiences. To do so, Gordon said, does not involve advocacy or sensationalization.
Zalot began covering youth homelessness with her team at NBC 10 when she heard from her own Kensington-based sources that the larger story of homelessness was related to heroin and other opioid use. When NBC 10 gave her and her colleagues the go-ahead, the team began covering the issue in a comprehensive way including interviews that spanned across the East Coast, using Philadelphia as the epicenter of the opioid crisis. Challenges to the NBC 10 team included the transient lifestyle of many people they interviewed, and the resulting difficulties in following-up with responsible reporting. Zalot noted that a colleague of hers witnessed an overdose and called 911, realizing only then the necessity of carrying Narcan at all times while reporting on heroin use. NBC 10 was able to publish their reporting across platforms, making specialization in stories a bit easier, but Zalot still confirmed that it was difficult to juggle the scope and scale of the lived experience of addiction, the medical perspective, punitive perspective, and community aspect under the same umbrella. Zalot also mentioned the importance of dispelling stigma and not perpetuating it as a reporter, noting that some former colleagues at a previous publication she had worked at were still in the process of integrating inclusive language that wasn’t inflammatory. “I’m a human first and journalist second,” Zalot said regarding the importance of being sensitive to these issues.