CINCINNATI, Ohio — On July 10, 2017, the start of an “ordinary” week for Cincinnati residents, 60 reporters flooded local courthouses, homes, and streets. They listened to police scanners, visited women’s shelters, followed cop cars. The goal? To cover the city’s opioid epidemic. They called the project “Seven Days of Heroin.”
The result was a series of 60 stories of shattered lives. Some snapshots were a single sentence; some spanned pages. They covered rich and poor, men and women, black and white. Together, they voiced the pain of a city — and the struggle of a people.
The Cincinnati Enquirer’s coverage won the 2018 Pulitzer for local reporting. Terry DeMio, one of the story’s two lead writers, shared her thoughts on the project.
Callie McQuilkin. How were you able to find so many stories and, particularly, so many stories from the streets?
Terry DeMio. I’ve covered the epidemic since 2012. In 2016, our then-editor, Peter Bhatia, asked me to go full-time. Over those years, I had accumulated many sources. But when I started this in 2012, there were few county commissioners or city council people or legislators or even health departments that were trying to address the heroin epidemic with any vigor.
We had to go into the neighborhoods where the overdoses were happening, where the struggle was real, where people understood — maybe only intrinsically, but understood to that level — that this thing, this addiction, was killing their kids, and people were going down, dying, regardless of what they tried to do to stop it.
These were people who were (more or less) screaming into the wind. They have remained my sources. They are the first stop.
I built the beat from the grass roots.
CM. Why did you tell the story with a mix of visual and written vignettes?
TD. A number of reasons. This was not going to be a solution story or an expert story. This is what was happening all day, every day. You may walk past it. You may turn down the noise of it. You may not be reading about it. We wanted people to understand the volume of the epidemic in all the different ways it was impacting our communities.
CM. Was it difficult to write about people you hadn’t met? A lot of the reporting was from your own street experience, but for the stories that weren’t, was it hard to assemble a narrative?
TD. I didn’t feel it was. Prior to sending reporters out, we talked with them a lot. We said, ask the questions you need to ask, but don’t do a cop interview of how bad the epidemic is. Feel it. Listen to sounds. We asked everybody to put down the time of day or night, what the weather was like, temperature, what people were wearing. And most of that goes by the wayside. But it also brings your senses up.
I covered the street stuff. So with Ali in the purple dress — I don’t know if you remember, but Ali is the young woman who uses fentanyl — it was a hot, sticky day. I don’t think I mention the temperature in the piece, but I wanted people to feel what she must have been going through. Because she’s standing there in this tiny dress, but still hot and sweaty, and all of a sudden, she thinks she’s going to vomit on the sidewalk.
Q. When you and your reporters were on the streets, did you ever feel tempted to intervene in the most serious cases?
TD. No. And here’s the thing: I know what the situation is. Ali is going to do whatever Ali does. Plus, she needs to trust me. She needs me not to judge her.
Now there would be an exception, which has never occurred. I have been carrying Narcan for at least four years now. If one of the people I had encountered that week, or anyone anywhere began to overdose, I would pull out that Narcan and use that to revive them. I’m not just going to watch somebody die.
CM. Which individual story touched you most deeply — or most struck a chord with you on an emotional level?
TD. After publishing, it was amazing to hear that Ali’s mom saw her for the first time in a couple years in our story. That mattered to me.
But the thing that I think made the biggest impact on people was this:
Our health reporter, Anne Saker, and our chief photographer, Cara Owsley, went to this great neonatal abstinence syndrome clinic for babies and toddlers and met with Stephanie. She was the mom with the baby. And she was beautiful. It was a bright moment in the story.
Ten days after that visit, Anne got a phone call from the children’s hospital where the clinic is, and they told her Stephanie had died — from an overdose.
I happened to be there. Anne and I sit right across from each other with one of those dividing walls — cubicle-type things. I saw Anne stand up and tears just burst out. I figured it out and started to walk over. She hung up fairly quickly and then Cara came over and they were in tears.
So that whole thing was the most impactful to people in the newsroom and probably to most of the readers, because it’s just a blow. You’ve got this hopeful, beautiful thing going on and then boom. Ten days later, Stephanie Gaffney was dead.
CM. I noticed that the project talked about sending reporters into their own communities. How did the local connection play a role in your reporting?
TD. The reason I think “Seven Days of Heroin” worked — and I’ve heard this from my colleagues too — is because we had people in the community. What I guess I’m trying to say is building trust, knowing who and what you’re writing about is essential to this kind of reporting. You have to be able to spend the time, and it’s to (then-editor) Peter Bhatia’s credit that all of us were.
You can’t just parachute in. It’s hard to just parachute in, do something for a week, and then go away.
ABOUT THE WRITER
Callie McQuilkin, 18, is iGeneration Youth’s editor-at-large. A freshman at Cornell University, she lives in Ithaca, N.Y.