US journalism students should undergo anti-overdose training

By learning how to respond to an overdose, we can better understand the crisis we will be covering - and save lives.

by &
    A nurse demonstrates the application of the Narcan nasal spray medication used against opioid overdoses at a  treatment centre in Indiana, Pennsylvania, US August 9, 2017 [Adrees Latif/Reuters]
    A nurse demonstrates the application of the Narcan nasal spray medication used against opioid overdoses at a treatment centre in Indiana, Pennsylvania, US August 9, 2017 [Adrees Latif/Reuters]

    We are students at the City University of New York Graduate School of Journalism and last year we both underwent training to use Naloxone, the drug that stops opioid overdoses. The training programme was not part of our course and we never thought we would actually use this skill on the job - until one of our classmates, Ivan Flores, used it to help save a man's life while reporting in the South Bronx.

    Statistics show that many more journalists can find themselves in a similar situation in the near future. The US is in the middle of an opioid epidemic. According to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), in 2016, more than 42,000 people died as result of an opioid overdose in the country.  Today, more people than ever before are dying from opioid overdoses, and according to experts, i n the worst case scenario, opioids could kill nearly half a million people across the US over the next decade.  

    Whatever happens, journalists will be covering it, and some, like our friend Ivan, will encounter overdoses while doing so.

    Why I carry an anti-overdose kit with me while reporting in America

    by Ivan Flores

    While working as a photojournalist in Afghanistan, I reserved a spot in my camera bag for my medical kit. When I moved back to New York, I replaced my medical kit for a Narcan kit (a common brand name for Naloxone), which I received for free as part of a training I took in preparation to cover the South Bronx. 

    Overdoses have hit the Bronx particularly hard. If it was its own state, the Bronx would have the second-highest drug overdose rate in the country.

    This winter, I was interviewing a heroin-user in a park when she pointed over my shoulder. Behind me, her friend had collapsed. His head split open on the curb, blood splattered on the pavement. The woman said he might be overdosing. She told me they would get high together on occasion. 

    The woman, one of my classmates and I ran towards the man with the Narcan in hand. My classmate handed the woman a dose of Narcan. She inserted the nasal mister into her friend's nose and delivered the dose. But the man remained unconscious. I pulled on my gloves, tipped the man's head back and delivered a second dose from my kit.  As first responders from the fire department arrived, the man regained consciousness.

    He was taken to the hospital to recover. After about 20 more minutes, I wrapped up my interview with the woman whose friend we just witnessed overdosing. She wasn't phased by what she saw.

    When I go into the field, carrying my notebook, two batteries for my camera, and a Narcan kit, I'm ready to respond again if the situation calls for it.

    In this landscape, we believe journalism schools across the US should include Naloxone training in their curriculum alongside interview techniques, multimedia production, ethics and hostile-environment training for reporters headed to conflict zones.

    Undergrad and graduate programmes are well-placed to teach these skills and one journalism professor has already started to do so. This winter, Jillian Bauer-Reese hosted a Naloxone training for students in her course on covering addiction at Temple University.

    Bauer-Reese said the training benefits journalists whether or not they encounter someone experiencing an overdose. 

    "Even if they're not going to use it," she said, "they can better understand how this medication works while reporting on the opioid crisis." 

    Other journalism professors should follow her lead, whether or not they teach reporting on addiction. Few arenas of American life remain untouched by the reach of this public health crisis. Journalists interact with a diverse array of people as part of their work and they are likely to come into contact with drug users in the field, no matter their geographical or topical beat. 

    Are journalists and educators - those teaching the next generation of reporters - willing to step up? So far, few have. Last year, the news website Billy Penn hosted a Naloxone training for a dozen journalists in Philadelphia. But in universities across the US, we have not found a single journalism programme that offers the training as part of the curriculum.

    The deans of our own graduate programme have said they support the idea. Associate Dean Andrew Mendelson has already asked CUNY's legal office if it would be possible to hold the training as a workshop or part of graduate programme orientation.

    "The professional norms of journalism are always in flux," Mendelson said. "I think the profession should be interrogating itself when new opportunities come about. What does it mean that we can carry life-saving medicine along with us when we're doing reporting?"

    To some, this question does not have a straightforward answer.

    Some journalists believe that they have an ethical duty to remain rigidly detached from the individuals on whom they report - even in a life and death situation like an overdose. While others believe that Naloxone training is not necessary for journalists, as it will not do much to help stop the opioid epidemic in the US.

    Kelly McBride, vice president at the Poynter Institute for journalism training and an expert on media ethics, for example, worries that giving Naloxone training to journalists may have a negative side effect.

    Carrying medicine that can save an individual "may make you more likely to focus your efforts on those individual narratives," she told us. This may cause journalists to ignore time-consuming, data-driven stories that would be more effective in holding actors accountable across government, insurance, first responders and drug companies, she added. Individual accounts of addiction are powerful, McBride said, but "they do very little to move the needle in the public understanding."

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    While McBride is right to insist on accountability journalism, we believe giving Naloxone training to journalists will improve the quality of the overall coverage of the opioid crisis. By learning how opioids affect the body and how to recognise signs of an overdose, journalists will gain practical knowledge that can't be gained from parsing a spreadsheet or interviewing an expert. This will provide them with valuable insight into the subject that they are covering. 

    And most importantly, as more people grow addicted to opioids, the last resort for many may be the chance presence of a stranger carrying this simple medication - And in some cases, that stranger can be a journalist.

    The cost of this preparation is small. Keeping Naloxone kits in our bags takes no more effort than carrying the extra batteries our instructors remind us to bring with us to the field. We may never need to use the Naloxone kit as we may never need those extra batteries - but in case we do, we'll be thankful to have it.

    The views expressed in this article are the authors' own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial stance. 

    Opioid wars

    Fault Lines

    Opioid wars


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