The Washington Post's opioid database is driving crucial coverage of a national crisis
Posted September 20, 2019 4:49 p.m. EDT
CNN — The opioid crisis is a nationwide problem that requires nationwide response from the media, according to Jeff Leen, the Washington Post's investigative editor. That's why the Post published a database from the Drug Enforcement Administration that the paper said "tracks the path of every single pain pill sold in the United States."
"We truly believe that this story is bigger than any one news outlet," Leen said. "It's affected almost every community throughout the nation. It really requires a nationwide level of media attention. So we believe that other people should have access to this data to see how it affected their communities."
Leen sat down with CNN's Brian Stelter for this week's Reliable Sources podcast to talk about how the DEA database went from being sealed in a protective court order to living on the Washington Post's website for anyone to mine.
Listen to the whole podcast here:
The Post collaborated with West Virginia's Charleston Gazette-Mail to wage a year-long legal battle to obtain the database, which the drug companies and government wanted to keep under seal.
Leen said that the Post "decided to fight for that data" because of the stories the Gazette-Mail had already published a few years ago about the opioid crisis in its own state using the same DEA database.
"We realized if we could get this data for the entire nation, it would give the overall picture of how the opioid epidemic grew around the country," Leen said.
What ensued was "The Opioid Files," a powerful interactive project published on July 16 that includes DEA data from 2006 to 2012. The seven years of information showed "shipments from sales of oxycodone and hydrocodone pills to retail pharmacies, chain pharmacies and practitioners."
Readers who interact with the database can sort by state and county to see how many pills flowed into their community, who manufactured them and which company distributed them. It even lists the pharmacy in the area that received the highest number of pills.
The response from the public has been staggering. Leen said there have been 40,000 individual downloads from researchers, journalists and academics who are using the information for their own analysis. Over 100 local media outlets have produced stories about their own communities, and 11 national outlets have written stories from the database, according to Leen's tally.
"More come in every day," Leen said. "They're looking at the data, they're seeing the patterns and then they're going out and asking questions and trying to figure out why this pattern occurred this way in their community and what were the effects."
Leen said this kind of data sharing would not have been impossible in the past. He credits the internet for changing the way information can be shared among journalists. Leen cited The New York Times' exclusive on the Pentagon Papers as an example of a news outlet that tried to "maintain its exclusives for as long as it could," even as the paper started releasing them publicly.
"That was the thinking back then, if you had an exclusive you rode your exclusive, but today everything is moving so fast and the level of complexity is such that the feeling is get the information out there and start the discussion, which happens on so many more places and so many more platforms," he said.
Leen said he is glad to "see the detail and the care that these local outlets take with the data."
"They make efforts to talk to the people on the ground. They go to the pharmacies and they ask questions and they talk to the doctors," Leen said. "And so I think I think they're taking as much care with the data as we are and that's very heartening to see."