Murrow-winning investigation reveals shortcomings of opioid response – and its news coverage

October 26, 2020 01:30

The opioid epidemic has been a recurring theme of many Murrow Award winners over the last few years. KUSA-TV’s Murrow Award-winning investigation of Vivitrol, an addition treatment drug, looked beyond the opioid crisis and at how the news media covers it. “A Vivitrol ‘Success’ Story” earned the 2020 National Murrow Award for Hard News in Large Market Television by asking tough questions about the efficacy of the drug, its costs and impacts on both personal stories and public policy.

Judges called the well-researched and investigated piece “journalism at its best.”

KUSA’s Chris Vanderveen, the investigative reporter behind the story, wrote on Twitter of the months-long investigation, “This was a challenging story. It forced us to look inward at media practices.”

We asked Vanderveen to share more about the story behind the story and what it revealed about both the response to the opioid epidemic and its coverage.

The following interview has been edited lightly for length.

How’d the story get started? What was your first clue something was potentially wrong?

Like any story I tend to work on these days, this story started with a story on something else. Years prior, we took a number of months to analyze significant prescription drug price spikes. The story was exhausting and left me with the distinct impression that drug companies were oftentimes relentless in their use of all sorts of questionable tactics to both market their product and increase their sales. During that time period, we also did a few stories on Subsys, the now-infamous fentanyl spray that was being peddled by Insys Therapeutics to doctors around the country.

After that, I knew we had to take a different approach with any drug that was being billed as “the next big thing.”

I had seen reporters do “one-off” stories for years on Vivitrol, and – after all of our work on prescription drugs – it got me curious. While large networks and small markets were all touting the benefits of the drug itself, I couldn’t find one story that involved a follow-up with the supposed “success story.”
Quick tip:
When reporting on a response to a problem, here are 4 key questions to address in your coverage.

Why was that? Fortunately for me, around the time I started asking those questions, we received word from a local jail asking us if we wanted to do a story on its inaugural Vivitrol patient. I agreed to go, but I had no intention of doing the story we’ve seen far too many times before.

When we met Justin, I told him we wanted to check in with him from time to time to see how he would progress on Vivitrol. He was very upfront. As soon as he got out of jail, Medicaid would pay for the $1,000-a-month shot.

If it worked for him, we’d have to be upfront with that. And, if it didn’t, we’d have to be honest about that as well.

Not long after, Justin – unable to get high off opiates due to Vivitrol – turned to another type of drug.

Sadly, we found, he was hardly the only one to go through that.
The story involved talking to people in incarceration who are also facing addiction. What are some of the ethical considerations journalists should be aware of for working with vulnerable populations like this? 

In the middle of an opiate crisis in this country, we must not shy away from stories that document just how hard it will be for this country to pull itself out of it. I also believe this is a time for us to NOT do stories suggesting any panacea is right around the corner.

For journalists, I get it. The lure of Vivitrol is enticing. Here you have a drug that is built to keep its patients from getting high off opiates for up to a month. If it works as well as advertised, it’s darn well worth its hefty price tag.

The problem is far too many of us were billing it as a “miracle” drug when the science wasn’t quite there.

As for Justin, I believe the only way to tell this story is through the personalization of the problem. He is the kind of guy this drug is meant to help. Each time we interviewed him for our story we did so while he was in jail and not using. I kept in touch with him through email and letters over time. He agreed each time to an interview willingly. He knew he had a problem, and he was open about it.

That being said, we should never take interviews with vulnerable populations lightly. These are real people with real problems. I always respected Justin’s willingness to be open about his problem.
You also talked to law enforcement and other government agencies. What advice would you have for other journalists to maintain constructive relationships with government agencies, but also hold officials and agencies accountable? 

It is not our job to make friends with people in government. Yes, we can have relationships that are built in commonality, at times, but we are NOT here to act as the public relations wing of police departments or sheriff’s offices [or] any government agency. That’s where I believe we have faltered as an industry for far too long. It’s “journalism by press release” and, in my mind, it’s only serving to erode the trust of our viewers. When we simply accept the narrative of those in power, we abdicate our responsibility as journalists.

That being said, I don’t think we need to be jerks. I always am upfront with people when it comes to the story I am working on. I tend to not surprise people and offer them plenty of time to respond (a luxury, I know, of working the investigative beat). I’m a human being first and a journalist second. I never want to lose sight of that.

Did you face any roadblocks in the months-long work on the investigation? What did you do to overcome them? 

Every long-form, hard-news story I have ever worked on during the last few years has come with a bit of a rollercoaster ride of emotions. We should never assume we know the full story on day one.

This story was one of those stories. With a story like this, I will call at least a half dozen people and ask them a simple question: “You tend to know a lot about this subject. I see the story this way. Do you think I’m wrong?” That one question has served me very well over the years. It’s kept me from going down wrong paths and helped keep me focused when going down the right one.

In addition, we lost the main subject for a brief time. When I went to follow back up with him after our initial shoot in the Jefferson County jail, I couldn’t find him. After some searching, I eventually found him in another jail north of Denver.  He’d been rearrested on a separate drug charge (which became a critical part of the story).
You mentioned the story forced you to confront some common media practices (including at your own station). What were those and what, if any, changes to your newsroom’s processes came as a result?  

Let’s be honest. We need more skepticism in this business. In this case, I found story after story – on both network TV and small market TV – on the “wonders” of Vivitrol. Now, I’m not going to say it’s a bad drug. It’s not. And, in many cases, it can work. But why on earth were we not following up with the patients who were receiving a very expensive drug for free while they were in jail or prison? And why were we not asking ourselves, “Who is going to pay for this?” once they got out?

Every market is filled with PR people and PIOs who are more than willing to try to get us to do a story on their product or their service. It’s not our job to blindly take the bait.

I too had fallen victim over my many years of general assignment reporting to similar stories.

In our newsroom here in Denver, I have limited the stories we do on the health care industry. “Medical miracles” stories, in my mind, are far too often less about a “miracle” and much more about good PR for the local hospital or drug company.

Does that mean we don’t do those stories? No, but I do want us to ask ourselves something:

Are we doing this story because there’s legitimate news value, or are we doing it because someone wants us to do their PR for them?
Tip from Chris
Don’t do another story on a doctor without using this website:

The report illustrated the importance of following up on stories and on looking just a little deeper. What one or two additional questions should reporters ask when they’ve found what looks like a “Success” story? 
  • Where can I independently find data that backs up the claim you are making?
  • Are you receiving any money/renumeration for this product?
  • I would like to follow up with you in two months. Where can I find you?
Then you call a bunch of smart people who have nothing to do with the “success” and see if they have any potential differences of opinion.

The most common question I get from younger reporters is a simple one. “Where do I find better stories?” The answer I give them is always the same: Every newsroom in this country is sitting on a treasure trove of stories. You just have to have the mindset that I’m going to dig deeper on some of the stories we’ve already covered.
Since the report, has there been any change in the use of Vivitrol in Colorado prisons and jails? 

Not on a large scale, but the state did order a review of how it’s spending money under its Medicaid program.

We also don’t get any press releases any more from local jails telling us of their inaugural Vivitrol shot. I suppose that was going to be a given.
Murrow Monday is a regular series going behind the scenes of Murrow Award-winning journalism.