Cincinnati’s heroin epidemic is both enormously overwhelming and numbingly normal.
Terry Demio knows best — she’s been reporting on the subject since 2012, when she first noticed the issue.
In 2015, she began working the heroin beat for the Cincinnati Enquirer, and by September 2017, Terry’s beat had turned into “Seven Days of Heroin,” a series of vignettes, photos and videos laid out to display a week of addiction and epidemic in Cincinnati.
“Seven Days of Heroin” is something DeMio, fellow project writer Dan Horn and Enquirer editors have been conceptualizing for about two years, she said. Layoffs and management shifts kept them from bringing up the concept again until May 2017, when they presented the story to editors who wanted to pursue a big project.
“We were trying to think of a different way of presenting the heroin epidemic and thought, ‘people probably…hear about it, they see some results, they see whatever stories are out there, but do they really get just how entrenched into our community this is?’” DeMio said.
The final product DeMio’s team produced profoundly proves that aspect of the epidemic. The story takes readers to a Burger King bathroom, a city park and a car driving down the highway, all of which are locations of overdose.
The enormous undertaking, which gives shots into the lives of dozens of Cincinnati residents somehow touched by the epidemic, involved a team of more than 60 reporters, videographers, photographers and interns. DeMio said after delegating and volunteering to handle all the piece’s moving parts, all the contributors pulled together to track the heroin crisis for one week in July 2017.
In the end, DeMio and Horn wrote the story, drawing on notes and interviews from the rest of the team and finishing the story by the end of August.
Sourcing for the piece, much of which relies on the honest stories of current and former addicts or the family members of those who overdosed, fell into place because of DeMio’s consistent beat reporting on the subject, she said. While other reporters had official sources or local government contacts who were helpful, the heart of the story was in DeMio’s established relationships, many of whom were in the throes of addiction.
The uncertainty of their situations was the hardest part of telling this story, DeMio said.
“I (interviewed) the active addiction people, and I just really liked being able to connect with them, but I guess not knowing what would happen at any given moment with them is certainly something that (was a challenge),” DeMio said.
But including those sources was important to DeMio, who said she wanted to show readers just how average heroin users can look.
“We needed to show their pain — we needed to show how real and how difficult this is,” she said. “We also needed to be at places like the jail, treatment places or the methadone clinic. People don’t know that people who take methadone are quite probably on their way to work, dressed in a suit or a uniform of some kind, and I thought it was important for people to see it.”
DeMio has known the stunning normalcy of addiction and overdose since she first began reporting on the subject while working at the Enquirer’s Kentucky edition five years ago.
“People were having all these vigils and stuff, and it was in these little suburban communities, and people had overdosed on heroin, and I thought ‘that’s odd,’ because it was just very persistent,” DeMio said.
DeMio, then a general assignment reporter, began looking into the problem. Her investigations became a beat as she moved back to Cincinnati and an editor saw her coverage as an opportunity to engage the community in a growing issue.
When she first began reporting on heroin, the lack of governmental response to the crisis led DeMio to focus on those directly affected by the heroin epidemic. The consistency, empathy and respect she shows addicts is key to building the relationships that let her tell stories like “Seven Days of Heroin,” DeMio said.
“I just approach (addicts) using the body language that shows respect and that I care, and that I know it’s difficult,” DeMio said. “And the beat work is really important…I think a lot of it is contact, being around, being there.”
DeMio said her years of practice in crime reporting, when she used to talk with addicts, prostitutes or families of gun violence victims, readied her for this beat. While continual engagement with such a sobering subject can be difficult, DeMio said compartmentalizing the different aspects of her life (one of which is being a single mother) is helpful.
“I used to cover crime and victims a long time ago, so yes you feel it. And you let people know that you’re feeling — you’re human,” DeMio said. “But you just have to segregate things sometimes in your mind.”
While DeMio has learned to deal with and expect the tragedy she faces on her beat, she said some of the Enquirer’s reporters got to see the issue up-close for the first time while writing “Seven Days of Heroin.”
The terrible toll of heroin really hit reporters who took a look into the life of Stephanie Gaffney, a new mother who got clean while pregnant with her baby, DeMio said. The Enquirer’s team got to film the baby’s checkup at the doctor, to see Gaffney’s new commitment with a healthy daughter. At the end of Gaffney’s brief, hopeful story, DeMio and Horn include one sentence that DeMio said “seems to have really captured a lot of people”: “(Ten days later, Gaffney is dead from a heroin overdose.)”
“It wasn’t shocking — to me it was sad,” DeMio said. “Tragic, horrible, but it wasn’t shocking. And I think that is kind of one of the realities that people learned.”
The piece struck readers all over the world as well, DeMio said, and received incredibly positive feedback.
“We got an overwhelming response to “Seven Days of Heroin,” I mean, from all over the globe,” DeMio said. “We were just truly shocked, stunned at how much response there was.”
But the response to DeMio’s regular coverage isn’t always so glowing.
“There are people who don’t like or understand or care about saving people who are addicted to heroin, and they make a lot of nasty comments, especially when it’s posted on Facebook,” DeMio said.
Part of “Seven Days of Heroin”’s mission was to break through and reach those readers, DeMio said, to show the issue in a new light. While she knows some people won’t see the story as news anymore, she does hope the story made some difference.
“To me in a way, it was a little bit of a relief to know that anybody who wanted to read that and was happy to read the whole thing, or even a little bit of it, or watched the video…knew much better what is happening day-in and day-out in just any old week,” DeMio said. “I hope it was helpful.”