Feedback wanted: our coverage of the heroin story

We’ve been getting some heat for our handling of the heroin story.

blackeyes.JPGMore precisely, I’m getting heat, for example Anne Bretts here, John Thomas here and here, Frank Anderson here on LG and here on N.org. There are probably others I’ve missed. I’m sure many others of you have criticisms that you’ve not expressed, either because you’re shy or you think I’ll bite your heads off.

So let me address the chonology of events and then let’s discuss whatever else. And despite the photo of my two black eyes from a few years back (click to enlarge), I’m not prone to violence or defensiveness. I’ve got a pretty thick skin so no need to be gentle with your criticisms.

See the extended entry for the chronology of events.

Was this citizen journalism? I think much of it was. And some members of the mainstream media have seen what’s been going on here on Locally Grown and realized that between the citizens blogging and the citizens commenting, we’ve managed to offer something unique and valuable that can’t easily be done otherwise.

But I could be wrong, so Anne, John, Frank, and others, please repost (copy/paste is fine) your criticisms and I’ll address them. Others (Ross and Tracy, too!), chime in as you see fit.

  • June 22: Kurt Larsen alerted me to the June 18 story in the Pioneer Press which ended with: “Falkowski said she has been monitoring the media for signs of heroin abuse in upscale schools for years, without finding evidence of the suburban drug trends evident in other states. That changed several months ago with reports of a heroin network among high school students in Northfield.”

    I phoned Chief Gary Smith and he verified the story. I blogged it with the headline: ‘Heroin network at the Northfield High School’

  • June 23: Chief Smith posted to his blog about the Pioneer Press story’s heroin reference and linked to the discussion on Locally Grown (he’s since removed the post)
  • July 2, 8 pm: I posted Chief Smith’s press release announcing a press conference
  • July 3, morning: Northfield News and the Pioneer Press ran stories prior to Smith’s press conference
  • July 3, evening: Twin Cities TV stations ran stories on the press conference; Chief Smith defended his numbers in a blog comment; I blogged the audio of the press conference.
  • July 4: StarTribune front page story
  • July 4: NCO Board member Cynthia Child blogs her coverage of the Chief’s press conference
  • July 5: I posted a copy of the Hazelden report in which the researcher wrote, “Outside of the Twin Cities metro area, heroin addiction emerged among high school students in Northfield, Minnesota…”
  • July 5: MPR aired an interview with the Hazelden researcher in which she says, “From people I’ve talked with anecdotally who are related … have connections at the high school…”
  • July 6: I posted a copy of Supt. Richardson’s response
  • July 7: Northfield News ran several heroin-related stories (I linked to them from here)
  • July 9: Star Tribune’s Katherine Kersten column
  • July 9: I posted the straw poll
  • July 11: Northfield News ran several stories. I linked to them.
  • July 11: I blogged the audio of the Mayor’s Task Force
  • July 11, 4:20 PM: I changed the title of the blog post from ‘Heroin network at the Northfield High School’ to ‘Heroin use among high school students in Northfield.’ I included an apology with an explanation on why I thought it happened.
  • July 11, 5:30 PM: Our radio show aired live on KYMN with Chief Smith and Supt. Richardson; 5:40 PM: MPR aired a story about the controversy; 8:4 PM: I posted the podcast of the radio show; 10 PM: I blogged the results of the straw poll
  • July 4-11: I interviewed two parents, one teacher, and three youth via phone and F2F, part of an ongoing attempt to verify anonymous posters and gain a better understanding of the situation.
  • July 16: I attended the forum at The Key and blogged photos
  • July 17, 11 am: I got an internal police department email, announcing the Chief’s leave. I phoned the sender to verify how they got it. I phoned the Chief, the mayor, the city admin, the acting chief, attempting to verify. At 2:45 PM, I got a verification from Ross that he spoke to a staff person at the police dept. who verified it and then I blogged it.
  • June 22 – ongoing: I moderated the discussions in several blog comment threads, removing some posts, insisting on civility, etc.

84 thoughts on “Feedback wanted: our coverage of the heroin story”

  1. Without LG coverage of the heroin story, which began on June 22, who knows when the story would have broken out in the more mainstream media. It would have eventually; perhaps after a cluster of deaths due to overdose, or perhaps when the number of daily users in Northfield began to approach the numbers implied by Chief Smith at his now notorious press conference.

    I’ve been grumbling about heroin sales in Northfield for more than a year now, although mostly only over the dinner table. But who else was there to complain to? The do-nothing Northfield cops?

    Once LG provided the forum, there was really no stopping the story. Facts came out within a couple of weeks that the Northfield News hadn’t been able to uncover in 3 years, and the disgraced local police department is now under close scrutiny. This wouldn’t have been possible if we had to get permission to speak from some city official or an editor up in Minneapolis or St. Paul.

  2. Thanks, Scott. Overall, I do think that this whole saga has been good for the community, and I’m pleased with the role we’ve been able to play throughout. I think Northfield DOES have a significant drug problem among our youth that’s greater than in other southern Minnesota towns.

    That said, I’m ready to shift to other topics, and the humor here is a great way to make that transition. I’m trying to do my part with this new blog post.

    I promise to let up once a Google search on the words ‘Northfield’ and ‘heroin’ surpasses 200,000 hits. We’re close, standing at 189,00 as of 1:30 pm today.

    C’mon people, let’s pull together on this. We can do it!

  3. Griff,

    Just when I was ready to move on, you throw out the lines that really nailed the “problem” for me.

    You wrote: “Overall, I do think that this whole saga has been good for the community, and I’m pleased with the role we’ve been able to play throughout. I think Northfield DOES have a significant drug problem among our youth that’s greater than in other southern Minnesota towns.”

    Personally, I think this whole debacle has been a disaster for the community, primarily because it has given too many people with no stake in our town or in the lives of its citizens, an opportunity to misrepresent us. LG has played a role for good and for ill over the past three weeks. The good has been in the opportunity for a range of ordinary people to speak. The ill has been the reckless pace with which the conversation has proceeded, often without any real information or factual data.

    I’d argue it like this: 1) NORTHFIELD does NOT have a raging drug problem. We don’t have junkies in dark alleys, we don’t have used needles littering the streets, we don’t have drug-related violence. We know that we don’t have these particular problems because we can look at public records and we find that either our police force is incredibly good and proactive, or the underlying drug-related criminal behavior doesn’t exist, or more likely, some of both. We have apparently had an uptick in petty theft and burglary. This is annoying to the victims, to be sure, but the increase is only glaring against the incredibly low numbers we have enjoyed in the past.

    2) It is clear that SOME PEOPLE IN NORTHFIELD have drug (and alcohol, and so on) problems for which it appears the community does not currently have enough of the right treatment options. That is a situation that some people have seen coming, and which we (the Northfield community) could have been more proactive in addressing. It is certainly one we can respond to more thoroughly and compassionately now.

    But we have wasted incredible amounts of human energy responding to mischaracterizations of our community, when the fundamental drug and alcohol problems are really individual.

    Which brings me to your comment, Griff. I don’t know what constitutes the boundaries of citizen journalism, but I cannot imagine that it would allow a statement like yours without a clear label that this is the writer’s unsubstantiated opinion, and should not be confused with factual reporting. Maybe that is an assumed rule of the road in the blogosphere, but unfortunately in this instance, the entire cascade of misrepresentation has been triggered by incomplete disclosures at the front end.

    For example, in your statement that you “think Northfield DOES have a significant drug problem among our youth greater than that of other southern Minnesota towns.” Really? Greater than other towns? On what basis? The one thing that the past three weeks has shown is how damaging such an unsupported statement can be.

    Maybe if you’d said it this way, it would be more accurate and invite less uninformed pick-up by other people and other media:

    “Based on NO FACTUAL DATA FROM ANY SOURCE, anecdotal reports suggest that our community is really pretty normal in the range of problems with which its citizens cope, but I think that the scale of our problems is more significant than other towns in our region because they aren’t talking about such problems on THEIR blogs.”

    Then we’d know that it is your unsubstantiated opinion, not to be confused with an authoritative news source, which might reasonably be expected to provide comparison data of drug-related crimes and treatment program utilization across other southern Minnesota towns. (But, just because we — the readers — might reasonably expect this, does not mean that a “legit” news outlet would do this legwork, either… Instead, we’re more likely to get “reporting” about your reporting, even though you’ve said you don’t consider yourself a reporter… That’s been the cycle.)

    Now I’ll move on to the Pottermania and Taste of Northfield threads, which I believe, based on NO FACTUAL DATA, are far, far more representative of this community, and the range of people within it.

    Respectfully,

    Randy

  4. Thank you, Randy!
    It seems like the most important issue raised over the last month hasn’t been addressed at all, and that’s the need for the city and other officials to have reliable data presented in a routine way to track problems and prevent a repeat of this wave of conflicting speculation. How else will we know whether things are better or worse in six months — or whether any of the efforts now being undertaken are worth continuing?
    I don’t buy the argument that there’s no way to do it. Other communities do it all the time.
    It also seems that we don’t need the media or anyone else to demand that such a system be created and used. Concerned citizens can lead the way. Now that’s a new discussion worth having.

  5. I had not assumed, nor do I think that I have the right to expect, that the postings on Locally Grown are factual in nature. In that respect, I have appreciated Locally Grown’s coverage.

    People assume, and have the right to expect that the City’s chief law enforcement officer would provide us information based upon sound evidence.

    Unfortunately, most of us now believe that the information being posted here is more reliable than the information given at the press conference. As fond as I have become of Locally Grown, that has to change.

  6. Randy (Post #54),

    I think some people may have gotten the idea that there’s a significant drug problem in Northfield relative to other similar towns because of some information that’s been coming out in newsletters over the past year. I get the PCN newsletters, and they’ve been reporting statistics from some high school survey and pointing out that Northfield’s percentages for drug and alcohol use are significantly higher than Faribault’s, in some cases about twice as high. I can never keep PCN and HCI straight; there seems to be a lot of overlap, so I’m not sure who’s guilty of putting these numbers out. But are you dismissing this information as mere stuff and nonsense to be expected in the blogosphere, or do you think it’s more a deliberate attempt at scaremongering?

  7. Randy, listen to the first 5 minutes or so of this audio from last week’s city council/school board meeting:

    Captain Roger Schroeder’s been on the five-county South Central Drug Task Force for ten years, commander of it for 7 years. Here’s an excerpt from his remarks:

    “I believe that there is a heroin slash Oxycontin issue here in Northfield that seems to be specific to Northfield… in our particular region it seems like for whatever reason we have what I would believe to be a higher than average, whatever that is, use of heroin and Oxycontin.”

    I don’t understand why you label my take as “unsubstantiated opinion” and based on “NO FACTUAL DATA FROM ANY SOURCE.” Whatever you think of Captain Schroeder, I don’t think his remarks can be easily dismissed.

    And after a month of listening to people on all sides of this issue, I think a comment on my own blog is a legitimate place for me to express my opinion, not as an authoritative news source/reporter, just as a citizen blogger who’s trying to handle this issue responsibly.

  8. I am wondering if part of the problem here is the perception of what heroin use use looks like.

    As Randy said, “I’d argue it like this: 1) NORTHFIELD does NOT have a raging drug problem. We don’t have junkies in dark alleys, we don’t have used needles littering the streets, we don’t have drug-related violence.”

    That perception might not be accuratre. I do not think anyone is saying that we have these things going on. For some, because we don’t, they do not see that heroin use is a problem.

    Scott, I appreciate your post #57. I believe that the statistics quoted in the PCN newsletters come from those who do know what is going on. Also, Sarah Shippy (sp?) and the treatment centers in our area see the problem first hand. The PCN newsletters came out long before the media frenzy. Should the HCI/PCN not be blamed for “fear-mongering” and “community sabotage” too? The problem is that nobody listens to what they are saying.

    As Griff said, “C’mon people, let’s pull together on this. We can do it!”

  9. Just a reminder that there is a League of Women Voters meeting tonight at 7:00 at the library. As an interesting sidenote, the topic of this meeting was decided upon well before the “media frenzy.”

  10. Griff,
    Absolutely agreed that it’s your blog, and you can/should say what you wish. But we’ve seen other media refer to Locally Grown as a source of information, not just opinion. I do not in any way think you are responsible for lazy reporting by other media, but I also don’t think you can diminish or dismiss the impact of what is said here. It takes no imagination at all to see another media outlet reporting that “according to the Northfield blog, Locally Grown, Northfield’s drug problems are significantly greater than those of other southern Minnesota towns.” I doubt you would be comfortable with such an attribution, but it does suggest that perhaps on this issue more fact and less opinion would be helpful.

    I don’t dismiss Captain Schroeder’s remarks at all. He seemed quite reasonable at that meeting last week. But the facts he reported don’t support your claim that our problems are worse than other communities. He noted that over the past several years there have been an average of 2-3 heroin-related arrests in the entire south-central drug task force district (roughly here to the Iowa border). In 2006 there were ZERO arrests, and none to date in 2007. (He said some 2-3 arrests are pending yet this year.) So, his factual data says that we don’t have an escalating criminal problem, even if his opinion is that we do.

    This is very separate from the question of whether there are people in our community who have problems with drug use and drug abuse. There clearly are, as there are in almost any community. Whether it is a big number or a small one, whether it concentrated in youth or adults, people need help.

    If we go back to the original headline about drug use at Northfield High School or to other opinions (not necessarily yours) that have amplified the drug related problems without providing any factual support, speed (the keyboard kind, not the pharmaceutical kind) is a dangerous element of the blogosphere.

    Randy

  11. Forgive me for not remembering the exact numbers or a having a link to where this information appeared–but don’t we have some numbers that aren’t disputed about the students treated for chemical dependency during the last school year?

    IIRC, the school says 30 students were treated for chemical issues during the last school year, 15 of them for heroin/oxy specifically.

    I disagree that heroin in Northfield is a “nonstory” or “fear mongering” or the problem of a few individuals. Fifteen students is a lot. I’m guessing for every student who reaches the treatment stage, there are more that haven’t reached that stage.

    There seems to be several ways (at least) of looking at this issue.

    1-Chief Smith is a hero for revealing this problem, the problem involves hundreds of Northfield’s young people.

    2-Chief Smith is unhinged, there is no problem in Northfield, or at least it’s no worse here than elsewhere.

    3-Chief Smith is unhinged, but the heroin problem he publicized is real, but probably not to the extent that he said.

    I go for #3.

    (If anyone can link to the school’s data on the number of students treated last year or correct my numbers, please do so.)

  12. Getting information like the Hazelden Report is what sets Locally Grown apart from everyone else on this story.

  13. Randy, it’s not just my claim. It’s Capt. Schroeder’s claim. And he didn’t just cite arrest facts. He cited crime, treatment and money-allocation stats, as well as undercover investigation info to back up his claim.

    I think it’s fine to argue that this as not credible enough. But I don’t see how I’m being irresponsible by saying I think it is.

    I think Strib columnist Nick Coleman was irresponsible for perpetuating the myths about heroin users:

    I looked around. Just a sunny summer day in the city of cows, colleges and whatever the heck is happening. Not a syringe or a needle in sight. Nobody lying motionless on the sidewalk, either.

    Everything we’ve been hearing since this began, including my interviews with users, teachers, and parents, says that it’s quite common for heroin users to appear normal and function as usual.

    Why not take Coleman to task for this?

  14. Carol Falkowski’s report doesn’t provide much of a clue as to how she came to the conclusion of heroin “addiction” among high school students in Northfield. She doesn’t cite her data source.

  15. David, if you go back to the beginning of this whole controversy, that was the point. She made an anecdotal point buried in a report, which got buried in a short Pioneer Press story, which got quoted here (and read by other media), which then exploded everywhere.
    Her last MPR interview also indicated she was just making a mention to note she’d heard anecdotal reports. That kind of reference is used in reports to see whether anyone else has heard the same thing, which can indicate whether there’s need for more study.
    Maybe she’ll have more on the MPR show today.

  16. David,

    Great question (#68). If you actually take the time to read the section of the Hazelden report titled Data Sources, you will see that the quantitative data cited in Ms. Falkowski’s study comes from metro area surveys or extrapolations of consortial studies. Unless I’ve missed something (which is always possible) there appear to be NO formal, quantitative data sources that include Rice County, much less Northfield. There is one comment that says “additional information” was collected through interviews with drug treatment workers, law enforcement and school officials. So it is entirely possible that Northfield was singled out for special mention because of ancedotal reports from one or more individuals, not from any systematic gathering of verifiable data that could be consistently compared to similar studies in other communities.

    Obviously this does not mean we are free of drug-related issues. But it may mean that the hysteria has not been entirely justified.

    Randy

  17. After listening to the MPR program, I think we need to ask for Ms. Falkowski’s help and learn from the experience of St. Charles, Illinois.

    Randy, I don’t know if comparing Northfield to other cities or requiring more exact statistics on something that may be too slippery to quantify exactly is useful now. For me, 15 students treated for heroin/oxy at NHS in the 2006-2007 is really serious. You can put as not quite hysterical, but leaning that way.

    P.S. Listen to the show:

    http://minnesota.publicradio.org/display/web/2007/07/24/midday1/

  18. Curt, without numbers how will we know what’s working and whether the problem is better or worse in six months or a year. If we were tracking West Nile Virus or lyme disease or smoking, we would not all be freaking out about a number. Not everyone who picks up a cigarette gets addicted. Not all smokers are addicted, not all birds that die of the WNV are found. But we have learned to get workable estimates and use them judiciously.
    Just get the experts to agree on the best possible estimate, know that it’s not perfect, set a goal for reducing the number and start working.

  19. Falkowski’s show essentially verified that her evidence of heroin addiction was coming from chemical dependency counselors, i.e. Additional Sources. It is unclear how many such reports she received. You should note that her report also indicates that, “Law enforcement officials remain watchful for a heroin mix known as “cheese” …

    I recall that the number “15” came from Superintendent Richardson. This number appears not to not have been a surprise to him, nor to the police chief (15 was the reported treatment numbers, not usage numbers). Nor does it appear that the number was significant enough to cause any alarm prior to the report of the 150-250.

    Consequently, it would appear that public officials thought that the matter was under control until Locally Grown aired the story here. It would be interesting to know what, if any, plan there was. There is no sense in developing a new plan if there was already a plan in place.

  20. Falkowski said that she received a number of calls from people in the treatment facilities asking “what’s going on in Northfield”? She didn’t say how many calls. She also said she’s surprised there haven’t been any overdoses yet.

    The number fifteen (which I think we can agree is a real number) may seem low in light of the numbers Smith talked about in his press conference–but what’s the magic number before a community takes action? 16? 30? –when it’s your kid or someone you know’s kid?

  21. Curt,

    No overdoses yet? Did she really say that? I didn’t hear the program, so I don’t know what Ms. Falkowski was basing her statement on, but I at least remember rumors flying of a death due to overdose about a year and a half ago–I’m thinking sometime in January 2006. If there was no basis for the rumors, I apologize for bringing this up. But if there’s something to it, it would be courageous for someone with knowledge of what would surely have been a tragic death to shed some light on it.

  22. I’m not sure what meaningful community action we can take that wasn’t already being taken before the press conference.

    According to Griff, Chief Smith verified the heroin problem. The School Superintendent was not alone aware, and appears to have the only credible numbers to date.

    So, let’s have them tell us what they were planning on doing before this story/non-story broke. They should have a much better perspective.

  23. David and all,

    I am not sure what efforts were underway by the school district, other than having Sarah Shippy, a drug and alchohol abuse counselor on site part time.

    I do know that the Northfield Mayor’s Task Force on Drug and Alchohol Abuse was stated in the spring of 2006 because of the data that was collected by the State of Minnesota and the PCN surveys. Both of these surveys were given to Northfield students.

    The Rice County Public Health Services began the Rice County Chemical Health Coalition (Project Prevention) to address the problem. This coalition began in 2004.

    More information on both of these efforts can be found on the HCI website.
    http://www.northfieldhci.org/
    (See second paragraph on home page to click on PDF or Word document.)

    After being at one of their meetings and hearing representatives from the Mayor’s Task Force speak at the League of Women Voters meeting last night, I have been very impressed by their efforts to collaborate with multiple resources and their implementations thus far. The ZAP program is one example. If you do not know what the ZAP program is, I encourage you to visit the HCI website and links to find out more.

  24. I have a couple of general questions that I’m hoping someone can answer for me.

    1. Does the number of 15 high school students referred this year for treatment for heroin or Oxycontin abuse come completely from Northfield High School, or does it include high school students who attend either the ALC or ArTech?

    2. If the “15” does NOT include ALC or ArTech students, does anyone know the parallel numbers for those schools?

    3. On the Locally Grown radio show a couple of weeks ago, Chris Richardson described the process that is in place at the high school to identify kids who seem to be having serious problems and refer them for chemical dependency evaluations. Is the same process used at the ALC and ArTech? I have heard that Sara Shippy of Omada sees kids at the ALC, but I don’t know if she also goes to ArTech, or if someone else fulfills a similar function at that school.

    These seem like important pieces of information, both for the community at large and for parents who are trying to find a relatively safe school setting for their children. I would greatly appreciate finding out specific information on any of these topics.

  25. Scott, she might have said “deaths” not “overdoses”. I’ll try to listen again tomorrow and get back to you.

    David, I’m not sure what meaningful community action we can take either. Falkowski talked about St. Charles, Illinois. IIRC, she said St. Charles is an affluent town of 25,000, 25 miles west of Chicago. The young people were going to Chicago for heroin and other drugs. There were some 13 deaths around 2000. She said the community came up with some sort of plan, and that it succeeded in some way. The show didn’t go into any depth about what they did or how success was measured. (I put that last sentence in there for you, Anne.) Why not bring Ms. Falkowski to Northfield for a town meeting?

    I’d like to hear other’s reactions to the Falkowski program. Anyone?

  26. Scott, I listened to the MPR show again this am and will try to quote Ms.Falkowski as best I can:

    “….the downside to untreated addiction can be death…. It’s just a miracle to me that no one has overdosed in Northfield to date.”

    Also, quoting–maybe answering the “is Northfield different?” question:

    Falkowski talks about how she tracks drug trends, particularly heroin: “….it really didn’t show up until earlier this year when I started getting calls from treatment providers asking “what’s up with Northfield?” ….they said we’re getting some kids from Northfield and they’re addicted to heroin…this was the first discernible outbreak in Minnesota that I’ve become aware.”

  27. Curt,

    My reaction to the Falkowski radio show was the old saying, “to a carpenter every problem looks like a nail.” As I listened I had a mild whiplash. She had many good observations and suggestions followed by alarmist generalizations.

    When we sit around the coffee shop and kvetch about what’s going on in town, it’s is fine to say that we’ve heard from “a number of people” that this or that is true. It’s fine to chatter about speculation from “unnamed sources.” But when a serious researcher singles out a specific community based on unspecified “additional information,” or when the chief of police trots out numbers dramatically different than the experience of other professionals and the available factual data, then I’d say the first burden of journalists, bloggers and even kvetchers in the coffee shop is to ask, is this factually accurate? If accurate, then we can respond, both to the news and to the underlying problem. But if the information is merely an individual’s opinion, unsupported by fact — however well intentioned — then it may warrant a very different, lower-key response. If that question had been asked a month ago, we would have had a very different, less inflammatory, debate.

    Curt, you may think that focusing on the accuracy of the numbers misses the point of the dangers of drug use, abuse and addiction (by themselves three separate issues) to the young people of our community. I completely agree on an individual level. But if we’re talking about shaping public policy, about funding social services, or about tarnishing the reputation of a community, then accurate research and verifiable numbers are essential. If we can’t get all of the relevant players to agree about how we define (quantitatively) the problem, we won’t be focusing our energy and our resources as thoughtfully as we should. Instead we will find ourselves doing more, wihtout necessarily having a direct impact on the problems we want to diminish.

    Randy

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