Guest Blogger: NBC 10’s Dan Jaehnig Talks Media Portrayals of Addiction and Treatment

Friday, April 3rd, 2015

Dan JaehniDan Jaehnigg is a six-time Emmy Award-winning journalist and the recipient of the Edward R. Murrow Award for journalism excellence in field anchoring and reporting. He is the prime evening anchor at NBC10 News in Providence, Rhode Island. He is also a Phoenix House board member and was recently honored by the Fund for Community Progress for his community involvement. He used the opportunity to draw attention to many charitable causes, including issues of addiction and treatment, and how the media can help in that endeavor–a subject he elaborates on here. 

Phoenix House: You’ve served as Master of Ceremonies and as a roaster for The Fund’s roast for the last five years. How did it feel to be on the receiving end?

Dan Jaehnig: It was great! We got some good laughs. I take what I do seriously, but I try not to take myself too seriously—this was a good opportunity to keep myself grounded!

PH: In the lead-up to the event, you noted that people in the media have a unique opportunity to bring attention to important causes. How good a job do you feel the media has done in spotlighting the problem of addiction and the importance of treatment?

DJ: Because we have an [opioid] epidemic here, I think in my area there’s been a lot of exposure of overdose deaths and some of the people we’ve lost—at least at this station. We’ve done a good job showing people not just the problem, but some of the solutions—including organizations like Phoenix House, that are trying to help.

I think we also could do more real-life things like show what happens when a person needs Narcan [the opioid overdose antidote]. Some people think that’s too graphic, but I think it would open eyes.

PH: When people see portrayals of celebrities “in and out” of rehab, they often get the idea that treatment doesn’t work. How can the media help change that perception?

DJ: There is an odd fascination with the Lindsay Lohans and people like that who have the means, but not necessarily the willpower for recovery. Like with any issue, we could do a better job of spotlighting the success stories. As much as we point out how people’s lives are ruined by drugs, we could also point out that it doesn’t have to be a permanent situation: that people can survive it and get through it. All of us can do a better job of spotlighting that. I think the way to do that is to show people the process. There is a process for getting better, and in order for this issue to hit home for people, we have to show that in its rawest form: This is what it looks like when you go down this path, and where it can take you if you decide to get help.

I’ve seen firsthand how a person gets to that point of needing help. Again, some people think that’s too graphic for TV, but I think that’s what we need for the issue to really hit home. I could show you a person in recovery who’s happy and smiling after making progress and as a viewer you might feel great about that. But would it really show the impact of what they’ve been through? I don’t think so. I think we have to show what really happens.

PH: Is having the ability to draw attention to important causes part of what drew you to a career in broadcast journalism?

DJ: Yes. From a very, very young age, I liked to watch the news and decided that I would like to make a difference by either running for office or becoming a journalist. I eventually determined that I could make a bigger impact if I was a journalist—by holding people accountable, telling stories on a bigger platform, and drawing attention to causes like this. And I love it. I’m not a guy who just shows up and reads the news. I’m hands-on, involved in everything from the copy and format to the promotion of the newscast. I love this job and feel very fortunate to have it.

PH: How did you become involved with Phoenix House?

DJ: My brother was a drug addict. He died 10 years ago at the age of 43. He was on the road to recovery, but his heart just couldn’t handle it anymore.

It took a while for me to talk about it publicly; I was in mourning and trying to figure it out. I also had people who advised me, “Do you want that to always be included in every story that’s ever done about you?” But I didn’t want to block it out or try to forget about it, and I didn’t want to sit at his grave and cry. I wanted to do something in his name, so I decided to do something with an organization that works on this issue—tell his story and help them in any way I can.

I think it’s important for people to see someone like me talking about addiction, and that it could happen in a family like mine. I grew up one of seven brothers in a great home with a stay-at-home mom and a dad who was a coach. When people are going through something similar… I hope it helps them to know that it happened to my family, too, and gives them some ease—knowing that they’re not alone, that we’re all in this together.

PH: What would you say to someone currently struggling with addiction?

DJ: What always amazes me is that we keep talking about drugs and overdose increases, but the question I’m asking is, why are so many young people turning to drugs? I know why my brother did—he was insecure and anxious, and the drugs made him feel more confident. He became the party guy, the guy who went to Grateful Dead concerts, and that gave him purpose.

Drugs have always been out there, but why are we seeing such increases among young people now? Is it because some lack coping skills and social skills? I see some Ivy League students who can’t carry on a conversation. We really need to reinvent the school curriculum to include social issues, and we need to start at a much younger age. We need kids to learn the real consequences of drugs, the benefits of making good decisions, and what constitutes appropriate behavior, socially and sexually. We need to teach them how to make good friends and interact with people. So I think we need to not just talk about drugs, but also address what’s driving people to take drugs.

To someone currently struggling with addiction, I’d say the same thing I say to anyone going through tough times: Life is a book, and every chapter is different. We all have great chapters, like when our careers take off or we meet someone special, and lousy chapters, when we had to bury a loved one or a relationship went down the tubes. But just as no single chapter defines an entire book, no chapter of your life has to define you. People going through addiction tend to feel this is it, this is the way the rest of my story is going to be. But that’s not it. This chapter doesn’t need to define you. It’s just one part of a story that keeps going.


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  • carol

    Great interview….So proud of you being so candid.I have a person in my family whose life is crumbling down around them due to a gambling addiction . I’ve learned, through counseling, that it doesn’t matter whether it’s drugs, alcohol or gambling, it’s all the same disease.I pray that my loved one will” get well”.Thank you, Dan for sharing…It touched my heart. ..

  • Renee Riebling

    Carol, thank you for sharing your thoughts. We hope your loved one is getting the help he or she needs. We agree that Dan’s story is so powerful–hope it helps you to know you’re not alone.

  • Skip Sviokla MD ABAM

    I enjoyed this interview very much.
    Please keep doing what you are doing.
    Skip Sviokla MD ABAM

  • Renee Riebling

    Thanks for sharing your thoughts, Dr. Sviokla. We’ll pass along your kind comments.