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To Report or Affect Change

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It seems that many journalists struggle with the balance between reporting on what is happening and attempting to affect change. Often the choice of stories seems to coincide with legislative agendas. If congress is discussing prison sentencing reform there are many articles on individual cases where the outcome seems unfair. 

If there is a tragedy, the reporting is often accompanied by a call for action. Usually this is a new law that would either have helped in this case or at least will appear to do something related to the issue. What is rarely discussed is what are the negative effects of the laws. 

Passing a law is difficult and often there is the temptation to get something passed while the emotions are still raw. Often part of the campaign to pass a law includes getting friendly media to publish stories highlighting the issue. Often these stories leave out aspects that don’t support the agenda being pushed. This rush to get something done usually leads to a suboptimal result. A law might help with the current issue, but it can lead to worse problems in the future.

In the early 90s, the drug companies, doctors, and the media pushed the idea that opioids could be used to relieve pain with few side effects. A letter “Addiction Rare in Patients Treated With Narcotics” that was published in 1980 in the New England Journal of Medicine is often pointed to as one of the causes of the epidemic. That letter was the source of many claims that opioids were not addictive, which was very misleading since the letter mainly looked at patients who were in the hospital for a brief period. Researchers found more than 600 citations of the letter. The idea that opioids were not addictive led to them becoming over prescribed. This resulted in many people becoming addicted to opioids.

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During the height of the prescription opioid epidemic the reports highlighted the worst pain clinics that were prescribing large amounts of drugs. Many of the journalist covering the story were pushing for the pain clinics to be shut down and obtaining prescriptions for opioids to be much more difficult. Lawmakers and law enforcement obliged closed many of these clinics. It became much more difficult to obtain opioid painkillers in a short time.

The solution that resulted from this issue was to greatly reduce the amount of opioids prescribed, but the issue was that many people were already addicted to the opioids. Making prescription opioids harder to get resulted in addicted people buying the opioids on the black market. This led to many of the users switching to heroin. Within a few years these people addicted to pain pills had transitioned to black market drugs. Many of these back market opioids were actually fentanyl which is much stronger. These black market drugs greatly varied on the strength of the fentanyl. Sometimes the pill would not affect the user other times it would kill them. Fentanyl is more addictive and deadly than the opioids it replaced. 

Laws need to be well thought out. The side effects of a law can be worse than the behavior they are trying to fix. Often laws can cause issues that could have been avoided if the consequence

The Marsy’s Law constitutional amendment is a good example of these unforeseen consequences. It requires that the victim’s identifiable information be withheld to protect them. The issue is what exactly is meant by identifiable information. It is making it difficult to get public record information from law enforcement. It seems that there is no clear understanding of what needs to be redacted, some consider gender identifiable information and are redacting that. This means that law enforcement is spending hours redacting public records, the public is receiving little information after significant delays. This was not the expected result of passing the law.

Trying to affect change is difficult and uncertain. A law can go from helpful to causing issues with a few minor changes, so it is necessary to carefully construct the law. Making laws emotionally usually leads to quick passage but lots of unintended consequences. Passing something is not necessarily a good outcome. People in the media have loud voices and can push for changes they would like to see. 

When a person in the media is pushing for change they are no longer reporters, they are political operatives. Often media personalities act as a political operative and then use their media position as a shield against pushback by claiming attacks on the press. This weakens the protections for the portions of the press which are acting as reporters not trying to act as political operatives. This blurring of the line between covering the story and actively supporting a side has eroded the esteem that many had regarding the media.

Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil
Lisa MacNeil is a reporter for the Hernando Sun as well as a business technology developer, specializing in website development, content management systems, and data analysis.
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