The Huffington Post’s Deep Look at Heroin Addiction
Picture by Partha S. Sahana via Creative Commons license on Flickr.
March 11, 2015

Editor’s Note: This article is part of Storybase, a series of occasional articles exploring new forms of interactive storytelling.

Reporter Jason Cherkis begins The Huffington Post’s recent project about the grip of heroin addiction with the harrowing story of a Kentucky family who lost their 25-year-old son, Patrick Cagey, to heroin.

The family had hoped that Cagey would beat his addiction and resume a normal life, but four days after returning from what appeared to be a successful stint at a 30-day drug treatment center,  Cagey died from a heroin overdose, Cherkis reported.

Cherkis’s 21,218-word multimedia project, published in January, weaves words and pictures with audio to tell the stories of heroin addicts and their families as they go to treatment centers in efforts to kick the crippling addiction. Many of the stories are based in Kentucky, where heroin deaths increased 550 percent between 2011 and 2012.

In Cagey’s case, the story includes a picture of his father, Jim Cagey, that fades from black and white to color. Below the picture, a reader can click on the audio file to listen to Jim Cagey tell the story of finding his deceased son. He had driven to his son’s condominium on a Sunday after church to check on him, according to the story.

Other elements of the story feature handwritten notes from drug treatment patients (now deceased), talking about the powerful hold of the drug. “One day you will surely kill me,” wrote Dan Kerwin, who later fatally overdosed, according to the report.

National investigative reporter Cherkis interviewed over 100 people and spent more than a year researching the story. In telling the stories of heroin relapses that resulted in death, Cherkis’s reporting raised questions about the efficacy of abstinence-based programs for treating heroin addiction. Those programs often deny their patients access to medical treatment options, Cherkis reported.

The project garnered national attention. NPR’s Fresh Air host Terry Gross was among those who recently interviewed Cherkis about his reporting. And shortly after the multimedia article was published, Kentucky court officials announced they were “reconsidering how its drug courts treat defendants thanks to a new federal policy that is pushing them to offer medications to opiate addicts,” Cherkis reported.

The project attracted 575,768 unique visitors since Jan. 15, according to Huffington Post’s analytics provided to AJR. On average, visitors spent approximately 7 to 10 minutes on the article page, the Huffington Post said.

As part of its series on innovative storytelling, American Journalism Review recently interviewed Aaron Bycoffe, interactive data editor at The Huffington Post. Bycoffe oversaw the design and production of the Dying to Be Free project. The following Q & A has been edited for length and clarity.

AJR: Was the story first pitched with all the interactive elements in mind or did the interactive elements come into play after the reporting process was underway?

Bycoffe: Basically it wasn’t pitched as a multimedia package; it was pitched as an in-depth investigative piece, and it made sense, since the reporter was putting so much time and effort into it, to put an equal amount of effort into the presentation of it, making sure there were other elements that helped tell the story.

AJR: Can you talk to me about why you made the choice to have the photos transition from black-and-white to color as the reader scrolls down the page?

Bycoffe: That was something [data reporter] Shane [Shifflett] came up with, and it’s a subtle way to draw a little bit of attention to the photos as you scroll past them. It worked well with these photos because the colors of the photos weren’t extremely bright…I would say that of all the work that went into the design of this, that’s the one thing that we probably heard people complimenting the most: that little subtle change in color.

AJR: Can you explain why you chose to include the actual handwritten letter excerpts as a part of the package?

Bycoffe: It feels much closer to their own voice when it’s in their handwriting than if we were to just type it out in regular text. It shows their actual grammar, and I think it makes the reader feel much more of a connection with that person, especially since these are people who are not with us anymore.

AJR: As far as projects for the interactive data team go, do you have plans for other multimedia projects like this in the future?

Bycoffe: We do these multimedia packages once in a while when there’s a story that either has enough elements to warrant it or there is just a need to draw more attention to the design and layout of it. There’s nothing coming up very soon that we’ll be doing it for. Our upcoming projects are more like smaller interactive data projects.

AJR: In your opinion, do you see journalism going this route more often with these big, multimedia projects?

Bycoffe: I think there’s definitely a move in the direction of giving these in-depth stories a presentation that they deserve. I think previously, it maybe would have had a few pictures, maybe some of the audio and video, but it would have just been in the regular Huffington Post template. It wouldn’t have stood out as much as these do.