Drug Reporters Know This Is a War―So Why Don’t We Cover It Like One?

    [This article contains graphic images of injecting drug use.]

    A picture may be worth a thousand words, but sometimes just four will do.

    Four words―”Nóng quá “Nóng quá!” (Too hot, too hot, in Vietnamese)―arguably did more to tip the scales against the Vietnam War than nearly a decade of protests, folk songs and civil disobedience, even though most Americans never even heard them uttered.

    Instead, it fell to a journalist, Associated Press stringer Nick Ut—who captured the iconic image of a naked nine-year old girl named Phan Thi Kim Phu fleeing a South Vietnamese napalm attack—to bring an entire nation’s pain into America’s living rooms.  

    [Credit: Nick Ut/AP]

    Commenting on the photo’s impact in a in a 2012 story commemorating its 40-year anniversary, the AP credited the image with “communicating the horrors of the Vietnam War in a way words could never describe, helping to end one of the most divisive wars in American history.”

    Historians have quibbled about that interpretation (indeed, U.S. public perceptions were already trending against the war as early as 1967). But no one would deny that it was the images, sounds and newsreels captured by journalists who were free to roam the Vietnamese countryside and see the collateral damage of the war for themselves that ultimately compelled policymakers to seek an “honorable peace” with communist North Vietnam.  

    That lesson was not lost on Washington. Never since have American war reporters been allowed the freedom of access that they were in Southeast Asia.  

    Journalists continue to mythologize the transformative effect the war had on their profession. In a recent op-ed for The New York Times―titled “How Vietnam Changed Journalism”―Andrew Pearson, an independent producer who began covering the war in 1963, remarks:

    “I took it for granted that American policy to counter Communist expansion into the southern part of Vietnam was the right thing to do…. As I learned more about the complexities of the war, my journalism became more accurate. The war’s defenders might have said I was becoming more critical, even biased. But in fact I was becoming more objective.”

    But for journalists covering the War on Drugs, the Vietnam experience may as well exist in a vacuum of history―a mere footnote to a foreign policy debacle that is almost completely ignored when it comes to covering perhaps the greatest domestic policy debacle of the century. Even many reform-minded journalists still accept at face value that preventing people from using mood-altering substances for recreational purposes is “the right thing to do,” no matter how vehemently they may disagree with Washington’s tactics.

    Through eight consecutive presidential administrations the U.S. has been engaged in a war on its own soil, with an annual casualty rate now higher than America suffered through the entire campaign in Southeast Asia. Unbound by restrictions on access, the journalism profession has nonetheless largely chosen to sequester itself from the conflict―relying in many cases entirely on information provided by one side. Even though the “enemy hamlets”―the equivalent of those that Ut and courageous colleagues like Michael Herr, David Halberstam and Dan Rather risked their lives to report from―lie just a subway ride from the comfort of their office.

    There are, of course, exceptions. But even some of the most respected journalists writing on drugs have never seen a person inject heroin, or don’t even know what a bag of heroin looks like (take a look sometime at the stock images that accompany even some of the best drug reporting).

    Instead, standard operating procedure for many drug reporters involves relying on intermediaries―mostly government officials, but also academics, researchers and advocates of all stripes―to serve as proxies. No matter what position they represent, all come to the interview table with some agenda. Even when that agenda is agreeable, it has the capacity to harm the credibility of the journalism profession.

    Background research and expert quotes obviously have value. But to what extent can we consider ourselves to have covered something without being thereParticularly when that something is a war that preliminary numbers suggest claimed more than 70,000 casualties last year.

    [Credit: Christopher Moraff]

    Agendas often go unnoticed. Once, after politely critiquing on social media misleading language used by a reporter I respect, I received, by way of explanation, the reply: “But that’s what [a particular government agency] used.”

    It’s worth mentioning the government agency subsequently corrected its language; to my knowledge the reporter did not. And this was from a reporter who has spent a lot of time, effort and energy on the drug beat, demonstrating that when it comes to the War on Drugs, even good reporters can be easily swayed to dig in behind the government’s interpretation of an event rather than question its veracity (or even concede its inaccuracy). 

    I used to be somewhat insecure when someone in journalism would point out my “unconventional methods” (such as testing street drugs for adulterants or passing out naloxone to drugs users who didn’t have any). Today I wear it as a badge of honor. If this conflicts with journalism norms, then it’s time to question those norms.

    I submit that as long as we continue to acknowledge that the American government is engaged in a “War on Drugs” on domestic soil, journalists covering the conflict must consider themselves war reporters first and foremost. As such, we must approach the topic with diligence, skepticism and above all a willingness to report from those places most affected by the carnage.

    Let’s start by deconstructing the very concept of a “War on Drugs.” Every time this term is used by a reporter (myself included), we are repeating propaganda.The term, first used by President Richard Nixon in 1971, is nothing short of spin―its purpose to divert attention from the fact that the conflict to prevent illicit drug use through violence is a war on people, not a war on “drugs.”

    No matter what one chooses to call it, Washington is losing the conflict and has been without interruption from the very first shot fired. This isn’t my opinion; this is a simple truth that anyone with any knowledge of the subject would find impossible to refute.

    In Philadelphia, where I report from the front lines of this war, the price of drugs at retail level has fallen by half in just two years, and they kill four times more people than they did two decades ago. Over that same period taxpayers have shelled out in excess of $14 billion a year for the privilege of witnessing a bad policy implode on itself.  

    Meanwhile, a handful of the smartest academics in America continue to write papers most average readers can’t even afford to access making this point, while mainstream journalists content themselves with “investigating” over and over whether the powerful synthetic fentanyl is deadly to the touch, a question that’s been asked and answered more times than I care to count. (The answer, by the way, is still the same: No.)

    If they’re not penning headlines on the scourge of drug addiction, they’re frequently reporting on the absence of treatment options for the afflicted. And yet, only within the past couple years has anyone bothered to question whether perhaps it’s not a lack of treatment that’s the problem, but rather that for the better part of 50 years we’ve been investing in the wrong treatment.

    Which brings me back to my original point: While policy makers in Washington are keen describing illicit drug use and addiction as a public health crisis in press conferences, make no mistake about it, they’re still waging a war against these things. But many reporters fail to see that because they avoid the front lines like the plague. Or else, when they do visit, they prefer to be granted orchestrated tours all too eagerly provided by the side that’s losing.

    Addiction may be sold by Washington as a public health crisis, a “disease.” But that’s because authorities don’t expect many journalists to be around when they snatch those afflicted with it off the streets of Kensington―people like the man below, who is shooting up in his neck using a municipal gas meter as a mirror.


    [Credit: Christopher Moraff]

    I go there, and it’s high time more of my colleagues joined me. Yet it’s easy to understand why they don’t. Resources are tight, the pressure to break news 24/7 has never been higher, and reporting from the front lines is dangerous and often traumatic work.

    I’ve seen fights, stabbings, guns drawn and dead bodies. I’ve sat in tents littered with empty drug baggies and talked to sources who smelled like they hadn’t bathed in weeks. I have watched drug users inject into infected holes in their neck nearly the size of a dime.

    [Credit: Christopher Moraff]

    I examined the scar on the arm of a young sex worker who nearly lost her life struggling to get away from a violent attacker. And I followed the path of another who wasn’t so lucky―tracing her route, step by bloody barefoot step, from the place she was stabbed multiple times to where she finally collapsed in the middle of the street.

    This is what war looks like.

    Nick Ut’s 1972 “Napalm Girl” is an astounding piece of photojournalism. But it was what Ut did after he shot his Pulitzer Prize-winning photo that came to mind recently, when a young journalist asked me (respectfully) via Twitter whether I encountered any ethical dilemma about carrying naloxone and using it (something I have done just once) to reverse an overdose.

    In a 2012 interview, Ut describes what happened that day after the cameras stopped rolling:

    “The girl was running all naked, and when she passed me…I immediately thought that she was going to die. That’s when I stopped taking pictures of her. I had water, so I put water on her body. I then put my four cameras down on Highway One, and began helping her.”

    Somewhere along the course of this young person’s journalism education they learned at the very least to question whether “becoming part of the story” is more ethically dubious than withholding life-saving treatment from another human being. If this is what passes for journalistic ethics, it’s time to change journalism. It will be my goal of this column to help inspire that transformation. Because the old adage “don’t become part of the story” is a farce. By your mere presence, you already are.

    After 40 years and a more than $1 trillion investment of public money, we as journalists owe at least as much effort to our fellow citizens suffering here on U.S. soil as our predecessors did to the traumatized people of Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia. Both populations have been the target of a policy that at one time seemed like “the right thing to do” but quickly proved itself the opposite.

    The war in Southeast Asia cost tens of thousands of lives. Yet today many ex-GIs feel safe enough to bring their families to a Vietnam that is once again safe and vibrant. The Communist menace was a construct, or at best an unknown. We may not yet know what an honorable peace in the drug war will look like; but if journalists don’t start reporting the War on Drugs with the same level of tenacity and compassion as our predecessors, we may not have another 40 years left to find out.    

    [Main photo credit: Christopher Moraff]

    • DISPATCHES is Christopher Moraff’s weekly column for Filter, featuring analysis and beat reporting. Christopher has spent over a decade reporting on the intersection of policing, criminal justice and civil liberties. His immersion reporting from Kensington, Philadelphia, has earned him a reputation as an expert on injection drug culture and the fentanyl crisis. His work has appeared in publications including the Daily Beast, the Washington Post and Al Jazeera America. He is co-host of the podcast Narcotica, and curator of the stock photo site StashHouse.org.

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