Journalist Mary Beth Pfeiffer: What It’s like to Cover the Opioid Addiction Epidemic

Wednesday, June 3rd, 2015

Mary Beth Pfeiffer is an investigative reporter with the Poughkeepsie Journal who recently won a Society of Professional Journalists’ Sigma Delta Chi Award for her 2014 series, Killers and Pain. In her powerful four-part report, Pfeiffer offers an in-depth look at Dutchess County, New York’s devastating surge in opioid overdose and death rates—a health crisis that has shattered countless other communities across the country, and one that the U.S. Centers for Disease Control has labeled the worst drug epidemic in United States history. Pfeiffer’s reporting gave identities to the victims of the epidemic, highlighted the danger of over-prescribing addictive painkillers, and revealed the all-too-commonly traveled path from misusing opioid painkillers to its cheaper alternative: heroin.

Phoenix House: How did you first learn about the opioid addiction epidemic, and why did you decide to cover it?

Mary Beth Pfeiffer: This series was inspired by the toll of deaths from drug overdoses the Poughkeepsie Journal had reported on a regular and growing basis. We [in Dutchess County] literally saw an increase in drug-related deaths of several hundred percent over a 10-year period.

PH: What was it like reporting on this story?

MBP: My reporting involved many months of research, including requests for information under Freedom of Information laws and interviews with numerous officials, treatment providers, and people affected by this crisis. One aim of the stories was to hold officials accountable for actions that fueled addiction rates. For example, the articles faulted regulators for failing to curb physicians who fed an epidemic of addiction—in many instances, doctors blatantly sold drugs, yet got off relatively easily. The series also explained how a law meant to curb availability of pain pills led some users to heroin; and, of primary importance, it put faces on the diverse pool of victims–young, old, mothers, working class. The response to the story on people lost to the epidemic, entitled “The Dutchess 63,” was both overwhelming and gratifying. It showed that people care.

PH: You mention I-STOP, the prescription drug monitoring database that prescribers in New York State are required to consult before writing a prescription for opioid painkillers. Do you think such programs are important in reversing the trend?

MBP: Yes, I think these databases have had direct results in limiting the availability of prescription opioids to those who may abuse them. But these measures must be combined with adequate addiction treatment and patient and physician education. Doctors continue to over-prescribe because they believe they must fulfill the demands of patients, sometimes with dire consequences.

PH: What was the greatest challenge you faced when reporting on addiction?

MBP: This is a story that has been slowly growing over a long period; the most difficult challenge was presenting it in a way that conveyed urgency. This is the worst [drug] epidemic, in terms of deaths by the thousands, that the country has experienced in many years—yet few outside the many bereft families understand that.

PH: What was your most surprising discovery?

MBP: I was most surprised by the extent to which government and medical professionals contributed to this addiction epidemic and failed to protect citizens from harm; as an investigative reporter, my findings made me personally angry on behalf of the lives lost and the people who mourn the victims of opioid addiction.

PH: What is the most important thing you learned while covering the story? What do you want readers to walk away with most?

MBP: I hope that readers are more aware of the risks of painkillers – specifically, of the importance of using them judiciously, questioning physicians on the amount and duration of prescriptions, and keeping them out of the wrong hands.​

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1 Comment

  • R Johnson

    Your reporting brings much-needed awareness to an epidemic that many do not know exists. Thank you for taking on the challenging topic of opioid addiction and giving a voice to its victims.