October 18th, 2016
The New York Times has a long record—see 1914’s: “Negro Cocaine Fiends Are a New Southern Menace”—as well as some much more recent history of out-of-touch drug coverage.
Contributors to The Influence have regularly commented on this. “The publication has been unapologetically misreporting about drugs for decades,” wrote our columnist Stanton Peele of the paper’s coverage of Prince’s death.
The Times’s coverage of the “opiate epidemic” is no exception, and the “Paper of Record’s” familiar judgmental tone is epitomized, in my view, by the reports of Katharine Q. Seelye, its New England bureau chief.
Influence columnist Maia Szalavitz, who also contributes to the Times, recently criticized a “dangerous” article by Seelye, which “suggests that those of us who want people with addiction to be seen as humans who deserve life have a long fight ahead.”
I’ve also been troubled by Seelye’s recent coverage of naloxone and parents who use drugs, among other stories. So I decided to reach out to her, to try to understand where she was coming from.
She didn’t want to speak on the phone, but requested that I email her some questions. Although I initially assumed that she was skeptical of harm reduction strategies, I came away instead with the sense that she has relatively little familiarity with harm reduction as a theory or practice—a depressing reality for someone who reports so prominently on addiction and drug-related deaths.
I began by asking her what led her to start writing about this issue. “I wrote my first story on heroin in July 2013, prompted by a rash of fatal overdoses in Maine,” she wrote. “It was news. I cover New England and found that overdoses were spiking all over the region.”
Then I put it to her that her pieces give the impression that she’s skeptical about harm reduction strategies—I asked her if that assumption was correct, and what she thinks ought to happen to reduce drug-related deaths.
“Not sure how/why you have that impression as I haven’t written about harm reduction per se,” she replied, “but your assumption is incorrect; on a personal level, I think harm reduction is important. I have no idea how to reduce the deaths, but I wouldn’t rule out anything as the deaths are only continuing to rise.”
Her claim that she hasn’t written about harm reduction is puzzling, given that she wrote a whole article about naloxone, for example, which is unequivocally a harm reduction strategy. And her statement that she has “no idea” how to reduce deaths would not be made by someone with a thorough knowledge of naloxone and other harm reduction strategies, such as methadone and buprenorphine.
It’s true that Seelye’s work has been badly served by some of the headlines applied by her editors. These have included “As Drug Deaths Soar, a Silver Lining for Transplant Patients” and “Addicted Parents Get Their Fix, Even With Children Watching.”
And that naloxone article was originally titled, appallingly and falsely: “Antidote to Heroin May Encourage Risk Taking.” This was later changed to “Naloxone Eases Pain of Heroin Epidemic, But Not Without Consequences,” and has since been further retracted to “Naloxone Saves Lives, But Is No Cure in Heroin Epidemic.”
To many, these headlines and to some extent the articles that followed have suggested that “drug addicts” deserve to be shamed, that being shamed might even be good for them, and that they might have to do certain things (like enter treatment) in order to deserve medical care.
I put all of this to Seelye and asked her how she felt about the framing of her stories.
“I don’t write the headlines and have been dismayed by some of them myself,” she replied. “As for shaming, I’m surprised at your interpretation; I don’t see what in my writing could have led you to conclude that I favor or approve of shaming. Maybe you think our continued use of the word ‘addict’ is a form of shaming, but that is a decision by editors not to sugar-coat the reality.”
Part of what suggested to me that Seelye might think “shaming” was a helpful strategy was when she covered a video of a mother overdosing in the presence of her young daughter. The video was publicized by the police and a newspaper. “[T]he video,” Seelye wrote, “may have been the push that the mother needed to persuade her to seek help.”**
I have previously written for The Influence about how problematic that interpretation is.
“I think the many users I have gotten to know over the years would be surprised at your interpretation,” Seelye countered. “They (and their loved ones) often tell me how grateful they are that I am so non-judgmental and sensitive to what they are going through.”
Read more from The Influence:
Ideas about balance and objectivity in journalism have been sorely challenged recently, not least by the whole Trump saga. Thinking of Seelye’s naloxone article, which quotes governor Paul LePage quite extensively as the only critic of naloxone—LePage has extremely regressive views on drug policy—I asked her if she thinks there’s a danger of falling into a “false balance” when covering drugs and addiction.
“No, I don’t think we’re going for ‘false equivalency’ in airing LePage’s views,” she replied. “His views are extreme and he is clearly in the minority, which was evident by the ease with which the legislature overrode his veto. But, as I wrote, he ‘gave voice to the troubling reality that some people repeatedly overdose.’ That is a fact—a terribly difficult and frustrating one for the many people who are trying to respond to this crisis.”
Yet it’s the implications of emphasizing that particular fact in that way that are so troubling.
While I don’t believe that Katharine Q. Seelye is motivated by malice, a deeper understanding of harm reduction would enable her to do a far better job of reporting on New England’s drug issues.
**Editor’s note: Seelye later sent us the following objection to this portrayal of her work as potentially encouraging “shaming.”
“It was not my ‘interpretation’ that the video gave her the push she needed to get help. As the women who had helped her told me, Mandy decided on her own to view the video and after viewing it, she herself saw how desperately she needed help; the women said the video motivated Mandy to stick with them while they scrambled to find her a detox bed.”
Seelye additionally sent us what she says was the original version of the relevant section of her piece, which emphasized that this was the women’s view. She told us that editors cut this section from the final copy.
Sarah Beller is an associate editor of The Influence. You can follow her on Twitter: @SarahLBeller.