Justine Griffin Interview

Justine Griffin is a Health and Business Reporter for the Tampa Bay Times. 


It would be helpful if you started off with a brief description introducing yourself, your background and current role, and what you are currently covering.


My name is Justine Griffin, and I am the health and medicine reporter of the Tampa Bay Times, which is Florida’s largest newspaper. I have been covering healthcare here in Florida for a little bit more than a year. Previously, I was a business reporter, which healthcare obviously plays a role in as well. I dabbled in healthcare reporting for a while. 


Great. And when you went into healthcare reporting, that’s when you started covering the opioid crisis? 


Yes, so the opioid crisis falls under a couple of different topics at the Times because it’s also very political, and some of our crime and courts reporters cover the opioid crisis as well as how it leads its way into arrests. But, for the most part, as the healthcare reporter, I write stories of the opioid crisis on a variety of topics: transitions of what we’re doing here locally to give patients more options outside of painkillers from policy in Tallahassee, the capital, to what advocacy groups are doing, and what addiction groups are doing to help here. So yes, the healthcare reporting covers the opioid crisis in a variety of ways. 


And in your coverage, what was the toughest article that you had to write?


That’s a great question: anytime you’re dealing with people affected by this, it can be a tough, emotional story. There are so many families I have met over my reporting that have lost loved ones, or nearly lost them, or they’re in jail, or they’re in the throes of addiction so much that it is a hardship on their families. Probably the most difficult story I wrote was when I talked to a variety of people here in Florida that suffered from pain. It’s not a medical diagnosis but they have varying levels of pain from different parts of their body but many of those people rely on opioids to manage that pain, which can be problematic. It is not great for long term use. I spent a couple of weeks with 3 different people who were chronic pain sufferers to get an idea of what their life looked like and it was very sad and showed just how difficult their lives are when they do have opioids to help them and when they don’t. It’s just a tough cycle. 


Is there anything you came across in your reporting that changed your perspective on the opioid crisis? 


Actually, I would say that story did. For people who suffered from pain, it was easy for people to label them as “addicts,” people who are literally depending on their medication to get through their day, but it’s deeper than that; it’s more complicated. These people have legitimate health problems, and they can’t find solutions that can make them feel better another way. It’s deeper than that; more complicated, so yes, they are dependent on opioids. We need to think about it differently: people who need to take that prescription drug to feed that addiction have a legitimate problem and society needs to find a better way to help those people manage that kind of pain. 


What kind of interview subjects have been the most helpful in limiting the opioid crisis in your state?


Since I cover health and medicine specifically, I try to get away from politicians and lobbyist people and drill down to the people who see patients who are addicted to opioids every day. A lot of those are advocacy type groups who run programs and have beds where people stay, like a rehab center. Those are the people that are on the ground, in the community, who have the knowledge and the day to day experience. Here in Tampa Bay, we have local hospitals that experiment by using different types of drugs that aren’t opioids to try and help people; they’ve even dabbled in hypnosis which is interesting. Physicians are great resources; they understand how medicine works and I think some of them are pretty clever and trying to find new ways to help people. Doctors prescribe opioids but they have really interesting experiences too. 


With regard to the opioid crisis in your area, do you feel like things are slowly turning around or are there still significant challenges ahead?


There are definitely some significant challenges; I think in many ways Florida has been a zero ground for the opioid crisis. In the early 2000’s we dealt with the crisis that the government was slow to catch onto. Our attorney general came down really hard on the mills and now this manifested into the opioid epidemic that you’re seeing everywhere else. People start with prescription drugs and then they solicit other drugs, such as heroin, and heroin is a big problem here in Florida, so there are definitely some significant challenges ahead. Our governor, Rick Scott, did enact some legislation earlier this year that was putting more resources towards this fight; the highlight of the legislation was cracking down on how long someone can be using opioids to treat acute pain, but the problem is bigger than that. We can’t just limit how much drugs people are taking; we need some money to be given to these advocacy groups that are really trying to help people curb addiction completely and not just cut down on how many drugs they are getting from the pharmacy. There’s a lot of work to be done, and we’re seeing the opioid crisis filter into so many different parts of life: a local university researcher this year looked at how this epidemic is pushing children into foster care. There are people who are very dedicated to working on this but we still have a long way to go.


What was the most memorable experience you had while covering the opioid crisis?


I’ve been writing stories about the opioid crisis for a little while now, and every time a story publishes, I get phone calls and emails from readers who have an experience to share and whether they like the story or not. The opioid crisis is a very sensitive topic for a lot of people and I get inundated with emails and phone calls from people who share personal stories about their chronic pain and worry about the prescription medicines drying out--about their son who has an addiction and they worry he’s going to end up dead one day. That is the most memorable experience for me. Advocates were tweeting at me for weeks after my story ran and they were really trying to get me to pay attention to their side of the story, and that’s what led me to write a story about chronic pain patients. I do think as a reporter it is important to look at things from all points of view, which is hard to do, but it changes people’s lives. And when you see the gravity of that; that’s the most important part of it.


I know you said Florida has had its challenges with pill mills and I know that later on there was also a discussion about the challenges facing some rehab centers: whether some of them had the right conditions or were using evidence based approaches. Have you heard anything about that?


We aren’t seeing so much of that anymore. As for evidence-based approaches, it’s easier for people to bend the rules in some ways and I do think that has changed because of the withdrawals and because reporters write stories for it. But it’s interesting now-the shift in what the big problem is now and people using drugs like fentanyl, using heroin like street drugs because they can’t get prescriptions because it’s getting harder to get them. I’m not sure what’s next; there’s a crackdown from a criminal justice side while the laws are making it harder for people get opioids. I’d like to see money go towards people that are helping people getting the help they need; that’s the only piece we haven’t seen too much support for--rehabilitation centers that get people to kick their addiction altogether. 


On TV, many sound bites focus on statistics like overdoses or the economic costs of the crisis. How can the press present a more personal narrative that the public can more easily relate to?


That’s a good question and I wish more reporters thought that way. It takes time and is expensive. I was reaching out to some of these patients dealing with chronic pain and a lot of those people were very hesitant to let me into their homes. I wanted to see what their lives were like from the moment they woke up to the moment they went to bed; how did they manage their pain all day long. That’s very intrusive and getting people to trust you knowing that you’re going to report their story exactly as we see it. It’s easier to take reports or something that the governor says and run with that and make that a quick headline for the day. I do think reporters are doing their best to tell those more personal stories thanks to those tips from doctors, from advocates, and from being in the ground in your communities and getting past those quick headlines for the day.


Based on everything that you have covered; if someone gave you a magic wand that would allow you to change a policy, which one would you change to most effectively alleviate the opioid crisis? 


Great question. I don’t know. Like I said earlier, when Gov. Scott signed legislation focusing on limits to prescriptions, there was some funding that went to addiction services. I would turn that on its head and make the priority addiction services. It should employ people who can help people get out of addiction. That’s the only way we can help people get out of the throes of addiction; that’s where policy and money should be going towards--getting people into programs that can help them versus perpetuating the cycle of incarceration and then getting out and then being incarcerated again. If there is education involved we can get people onto new paths and out of this cycle.


There is a saying that good journalism makes the important parts interesting. What techniques do you use in your reporting to achieve that ideal? 


Again, it’s just getting people to talk to you and trust you and that takes time. I want to talk to everyone involved: not necessarily people trained to go on TV for media interviews: nurses in the ER, doctors trying to find new ways and methods to treat pain that aren’t opioid prescriptions: people like that who see this every day and treat pain every day and try to help people. I see it as my job to share others’ experiences and how they are dealing with this and how this fits into our society, our community, and how we are all trying to live. I interview doctors and even people who are addicted and don’t know where to go. Those stories are the most powerful; the more humanizing they are the more relatable they are: broader than just statistics and headlines.


In addition to the reporting you have done, what other resources would you recommend to members of the public that want to learn more about the opioid crisis?


It depends on where you live. In our local community, one is called Operation Par that runs addiction programs in FL. USF studies foster care links to the opioid epidemic; they put out tons of research. There are so many resources at the state or local level and it depends on what is in your community. 


Have you seen a lot of local grassroots efforts in your state?


Yes, a lot of grassroots efforts.


It’s cool to see the top-down efforts from policymakers and public health officials. I think that’s all the prepared questions I have. Did you have any other thoughts you wanted to share? 


Not any that I can think of off the top of my head. In St. Petersburg and at Johns Hopkins, 2.5 million dollars have been spent on helping treat addicted babies who are born addicted which is also a problem in Florida. State reports suggest that 4215 babies here are born addicted to drugs. That’s a 59% increase in 2016 from 2015. That’s an alarming growing trend. It’s interesting because it’s just a children’s hospital that treats children but they are facing some of these issues too because of the epidemic. It’s alarming. It’s interesting and I hope you see more organizations putting money towards this to battle this.