Photo illustration via flickr (K-State Research and Extension, Creative Commons)

Reposted from the Rural Blog, a publication of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.

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Labeling a story “First in a series” often gives a newspaper some wiggle room. The series could be as short as two stories, and it doesn’t have to be regular, just occasional. But Editor Brad Martin of the Hickman County Times in Centerville, Tennessee, not only used that label, he set a public marker for himself and the weekly: “Once a month during 2021, my goal is to report on an aspect of drug addiction.”

The story labeled first wasn’t actually the first. On December 7, Martin reported on a local family that had lost a member to drugs a month before, and their creation of a foundation to fund drug treatment to keep other families from suffering the same tragedy.

Bradley A. Martin, editor of the Hickman (Tennessee) County Times

“The foundation has put its thumb on Hickman County’s most crippling problem: drug use,” Martin wrote. “Too many folks, mostly young adults, are rendered helpless by their dependency on illegal substances. Employers have a hard time finding workers who can pass a drug test; how will we attract industry if we can’t create responsible employees? This is one of those problems that cannot be solved by anyone but us. I can assure you that Superman is not coming.”

In late January, Martin did a feature story about the life and death of Dalton Beard, who died at 25, and his family. He reported that the foundation had obtained and distributed 28 doses of Narcan, which can reverse an overdose, and provided insight into just how hard it is to reverse drug addiction.

“Rehabilitation, for all of its benefits, lacks effectiveness if the addict is not ready to change,” Martin writes, quoting father Floyd Dalton: “One thing I did learn — all that time taking him back and forth to rehab — if they’re not ready to go, you’re wasting your time.”

In his column, Martin wrote, “Addiction can happen to anyone, and breaking free from it is a Herculean challenge. What the Beard family is doing is the only way to attack this problem: Get involved. Drug addiction is one of those dilemmas that demand hands-on attention from people who live close by.”

It also demands attention from local news media, to help overcome the stigma that is an obstacle to action by individuals, families and communities. “More information about any problem can help solve it,” Martin wrote, concluding his column with some possible story ideas:

“I want to write the story of an addict who has recovered, and explain what it took. Same for drug counselors: What do we need to know, and how can we help addicts? Rehab centers: What do they see, and what can they tell us back here about addiction, including what to look for?

“Plenty of drug users end up in the criminal justice system; how does that work, or not work? I want to know whether spending tax dollars for more rehab, instead of more prosecution, might be a way to go. Does drug court work?”

All good questions, and good story ideas. And they’re not unique to Hickman County. You can read his stories and column here.

Al Cross is director of the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues at the University of Kentucky.