How drug reporting is changing

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Journalism has a drug problem. It’s festered for years, from the panic-stricken coverage of marijuana in the 1930s, through the War on Drugs, to the spike in heroin use today. At issue is reporting that is frenzied, frightened, and too often shaped and spun by law enforcement. At risk is a misinformed public. 

But what if a news outlet were to abandon the long-held assumptions and conventions of drug and addiction reporting? That’s the goal of The Influence, a single-issue website with a four-person staff that aims to “promote a rational view” of drugs. It comes at a time when a number of news outlets are amping up their drug coverage. Yet The Influence’s progressive view of drugs trades one battle for another: Instead of police spin, its writers contend with slant from advocates and the sprawling rehab industry. 

The site, which launched last month, doesn’t officially support or denounce drug use. Editor in Chief Will Godfrey says the work is largely guided by an often ignored reality: that most people who get high, even off hard drugs, don’t become addicts. That focus leads the outlet to stories that are overlooked by big-name media. “Drugs are not malign entities out to get us; neither are they manna from the gods,” Godfrey says. “If we approach drugs rationally, we have a much better chance of using or not using them in a way that is good for society.”

Over the past few years, a demand for advertising in the recovery industry, coupled with large news outlets’ resolve to cover the growing heroin problem in the US, has begun to stimulate the drug reporting beat. In the best cases, the journalism coming out of these outlets is thoughtful, and it’s skeptical of prevailing narratives. A few recent examples: The Atlantic has challenged the effectiveness of Alcoholics Anonymous, The Huffington Post has investigated legal obstacles facing addicts seeking Suboxone and similar recovery drugs, and The Boston Globe has questioned the very language we use to discuss addiction.

 

If we approach drugs rationally, we have a much better chance of using or not using them in a way that is good for society.

 

“For years, this has been an area where bad things can flourish because there is no light,” says Maia Szalavitz, a longtime drug reporter and author of the upcoming book Unbroken Brain: A Revolutionary New Way of Understanding Addiction. “In the past, I could name the people who have specialized in covering this for more than a few years on one hand.”

The Influence’s story on synthetic drugs like K2 is an example of that changing tide. The piece, by Deputy Editor Tana Ganeva, calls into question the fear and hype that has marked similar reports, such as those that echo police concerns and label the substance “highly dangerous” or describe users as “zombies.” Ganeva focuses on the drug’s grip on homeless people, and she builds her story on interviews with users, advocates on the street, and scientific researchers. The piece doesn’t undermine the health and social dangers of synthetic drugs; it challenges the notion that these drugs are causing mass hysteria, opting to explore why people use them—and where to go from here.

That kind of nuance, rather than alarmist absolutism, represents The Influence at its brightest. But in a country that’s still waging the War on Drugs, merely presenting a more complex story can ring the bell of bias. Reporting on drugs from any standpoint but the status quo can draw suspicion from readers and policymakers, and the staff at The Influence knows it. The publication’s most challenging hurdle may be getting people to believe them. 

“We’re not going to run a story that says marijuana cures cancer,” says Kristen Gwynne, an associate editor who previously ran drug coverage at the far-left website AlterNet. “We are committed to backing up everything we say with evidence.” Scientists and their studies, Influence staffers say, guide coverage. Of course, sites run by activists and wishful thinkers, whether disingenuous or simply misguided, have also claimed a dedication to science, and their efforts have ultimately led to the spread of misinformation.

The Influence’s writers acknowledge that they harbor opinions. But they are markedly different from that cohort in that they are actually journalists. Their bylines have appeared in publications like The Daily Beast, Rolling Stone, and Vice News. They’re all millennials, but they’ve been in the business for several years. One associate editor worked in the Middle East as a foreign correspondent. Digital heavyweights like Vice, HuffPo, and Refinery29 have republished The Influence’s work.

The site is not without its flaws. A piece on attacks against electronic cigarettes, for instance, casually mentions “an avalanche of methodologically flawed and widely publicized studies” that link the product to cancer. But the author neglects due diligence, linking to the academic reports but to nothing that refutes their legitimacy. Unsupported assertions supply critics with ammo.

Perhaps the greatest worry for the site’s reputation is its owner and founder, AVA Consultants, a marketing company that designs websites and magazines for rehab clinics and halfway houses. Godfrey says the company is pumping $30,000 per month into The Influence’s editorial operation. An executive at AVA says stakeholders hope the site will become a household name in the recovery field, which could boost the company’s ability to draw new clients. AVA declined to provide any additional information regarding the investment.

 

For years, this has been an area where bad things can flourish because there is no light.

 

Drug-centric news services are becoming more common as recovery companies look to advertise. Insiders say the trend picked up after the passage of the Affordable Care Act, which expanded insurance coverage for addiction treatment. The first of its kind was The Fix, which was established in 2011 and soon found that there was money in directing people toward the rehab clinics that best suit them. Rehabs.com, the defunct Substance.com (Godfrey once edited the site, along with The Fix*), and RenewEveryDay.com have all made a business out of covering the wide-ranging world of drugs while selling ads or marketing plans to recovery companies, backed by their editorial work. There’s been little reporting on this phenomenon and few verdicts on the strength of the resulting news coverage. The force of the invisible hand of the business side in each operation is unknown.

Godfrey’s contract includes a clause that protects The Influence’s editorial independence, a power that he has demonstrated. One of The Influence’s strongest pieces is a reported column by Szalavitz, who highlights the lack of regulations in the rehab industry and argues for reform. The piece questions some strategies used by AVA’s clients. “I certainly wouldn’t be interested in writing for anywhere that is going to get me seen as some kind of tool of industry,” Szalavitz says. Conversely, AVA Consultants does not endorse any opinions or information published on The Influence.

Interested parties loom over nearly every subject monitored by journalists. Yet to achieve a place of respect in the industry, The Influence must battle public perceptions molded by decades of pro-drug war propaganda. Its reporting and prose, therefore, must help readers to distinguish between unconventional drug and addiction reporting and advocates’ messages. Further, Influence staffers repeatedly make clear that they respect the horrible effects associated with some drug use. 

The Influence does publish opinion pieces by well-known doctors in the addiction space. But the reporting in these stories relies on facts—like the column by Carl Hart, a Columbia University psychology and psychiatry professor, on the proven effects of meth, which are similar to the study-drug Adderall when properly administered, and parroted misperceptions of the drug.

The Influence’s reporters do original deep dives, first-person takes (such as this crusade against the stereotype of “junkie” sex workers), and snarky aggregation.

This counter-intuitive journalism requires readers to scrutinize the “truths” put forth by anti-drug public service announcements, self-interested police, and politicians who are hooked on the status quo. But Godfrey says moves toward marijuana legalization and harm-reduction measures for opioid users make now the right time for a journalistic pivot. “Where America is right now is discussing the extent and exact nature of drug policy reform,” he says. “It’s not talking about whether drug policy reform should happen.”

Perhaps the issue for sites like The Influence, then, is not whether its coverage may succumb to the sway of drug-policy reformers, or even their owners. The pressing question is whether such outlets can more accurately report reality than mainstream journalists historically have. Reaching that goal requires the fear-mongering to go up in smoke, and The Influence is stoking those flames.

*This sentence has been edited for clarity.

Jack Murtha is a CJR Delacorte Fellow. Follow him on Twitter at @JackMurtha