As the opioid epidemic barrels into its third decade, it’s increasingly hard to find fresh ways to report on the problem. One group was always present in stories but as supporting characters in the background: parents, hundreds of thousands of them who desperately tried to save their children, then buried them anyway. Louisville, Kentucky-based AP national writer Claire Galofaro chose to focus on them, the people from whom the epidemic has taken the most.
The result was two beautifully written and photographed narratives – one a deeply personal look at a California family struggling to cope with grief and guilt a year after their 20-year-old’s death; the second a moving story on the “sisterhood of grief,” a Massachusetts support and advocacy group of bereaved parents – along with an extensive Q&A about the epidemic, a full video story and three digital videos in which we hear three different mothers talking about the extreme lengths they went to to try and save their children.
The project involved journalists across formats throughout the country – Jae Hong, Steven Senne, Pat Semansky, Jeff Roberson, Mark Humphrey, Rodrique Ngowi, Krysta Fauria, Dario Lopez, Ricardo Alonso-Zaldivar and Carla Johnson – teaming with Galofaro and enterprise editors Pauline Arrillaga, Jeannie Ohm, Raghu Vadarevu and Enric Marti to think creatively about how text, video, multimedia and photos could work together. For example, Semansky, Roberson and Humphrey went to homes in Maryland, Tennessee and Missouri to shoot digital videos that all used the same specific format – we see photos of the children over time as their mothers share memories of their lost battles. Galofaro conducted each interview via FaceTime while the photo/video journalists were on site, and Lopez put the pieces together into miniature documentaries.
In a nation inured to a crisis that has burned for two decades, with a death count so high it’s hard to comprehend, this series struck a raw nerve. Engagement was extraordinary: The main story was No. 1 on apnews.com the day it ran, with an average engagement time of longer than two minutes. The following day, it got an additional 10,300 page views, with an engagement time of three minutes. Two days after it published, readers still stayed with the main story for nearly three minutes. The stories ran on newspaper front pages from Vermont to Oklahoma, Ohio to Washington state. A week later, newspapers were still using it: It appeared in the Sunday Chicago Tribune and The Virginian-Pilot.
Hundreds sent emails and tweets. People who have lost someone to the epidemic wrote that the coverage made them feel less alone. People who haven’t lost someone wrote that they felt for the first time like this is not some faraway problem unworthy of their attention. A chronic pain patient, long frustrated that the epidemic spurred regulation that makes it harder to get prescription opioids, wrote that the stories made him see it from the other side. More than one person said that they felt like they were sitting with these families in their living rooms. One printed out copies of the stories and mailed them to her congressman, with a demand that they finally get serious about finding a solution.
For a cross-format effort so intimate, so devastating, it recaptured the attention of a nation that had been exhausted by stories about the opioid epidemic, the team that produced the Left Behind package wins this week’s Best of the States award.