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More than a decade ago, a newspaper made a bold effort to cover the dawning opioid crisis in America. But a few errors imperiled a critical story.

United States Project

In 2003, the Orlando Sentinel published the first installment of a five-part series on oxycodone-related deaths in Florida. While a number of local newsrooms around the country had pursued stories on the same topic, the Sentinel’s coverage “eerily prefigured today’s opioid epidemic,” writes Mark Pinsky, a former Sentinel reporter.
 
However, errors undercut the impact of the Sentinel’s ambitious effort. More than 500 deaths were attributed to use of oxycodone alone, and reports could not detail how many deaths stemmed from using prescriptions according to doctors’ recommendations. And two primary characters from the series who suffered overdoses attributed by reporters to “accidental addiction” had histories of drug abuse. “Journalistic carelessness caused the project to backfire,” argues Pinsky, “and thus miss its target.”
 
All journalists pursue pressing stories with the knowledge that errors threaten their best efforts. At CJR, Pinsky provides an insightful look at the Orlando Sentinel’s coverage of an epidemic that still imperils many communities throughout the country. Pinsky’s story honors the Sentinel’s bold work, and also helps safeguard reporters against similar pitfalls.
 
“The series was flawed, as the newspaper has acknowledged,” the Sentinel’s former editorial board chairman tells CJR. “The current deadly opioid epidemic, however, serves as a reminder that journalistic flaws don’t always mean that there is no need for concern.”

Indeed, that concern persists throughout the country. Mary Meehan, a reporter for the Ohio Valley ReSource, wrote for CJR about the importance of covering the opioid epidemic as a public health story as well as a law enforcement story. And STAT's Max Blau pointed out an opportunity for local and regional reporters to cover addiction treatment shortages in their communities. Read their stories along with Pinsky's at CJR.org.

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