An Orlando Sentinel series in 2003 anticipated today’s opioid epidemic, but journalistic carelessness allowed the drug’s manufacturer to attack the newspaper.
In 2003, the Orlando Sentinel published a devastating, five-part, front-page series entitled “OxyContin Under Fire: Pain Pill Leaves Death Trail.” The newspaper printed thousands of words in articles and sidebars, with more reporting in the weeks and months that followed, reports the Columbia Journalism Review. The series eerily prefigured today’s opioid epidemic: thousands of lives shattered, broken, and lost as a result of taking oxycodone, some through “accidental addiction” caused by casual overprescribing; others through abuse. In the process, the drug created a law enforcement crisis of illegal trafficking through bogus pain clinics, “pill mills,” and legitimately prescribed drugs diverted for profit and recreational use
Despite the Sentinel’s prescience, journalistic carelessness caused the project to backfire, and thus miss its target. Within days, serious reporting errors in the series emerged, beginning with two innocent “victims” of the drug who turned out to have been drug abusers. An analysis of autopsy reports cited in the articles also was faulty and misleading. A series of corrections followed, effectively undercutting an opportunity to alert the nation to an emerging opioid crisis that would become much worse. The unforced errors gave OxyContin maker Purdue Pharma an opening to attack the Sentinel in a PR campaign ultimately aimed at avoiding a regulatory crackdown and ensuring a bonanza of profits. “The series was flawed, as the newspaper has acknowledged,” recalls Manning Pynn, former chairman of the editorial board. “The current deadly opioid epidemic, however, serves as a reminder that journalistic flaws don’t always mean that there is no need for concern.”