The Truth Hurts
A series about heroin abuse in the Hartford Courant makes waves
By Marcel Dufresne
Marcel Dufresne is an associate professor of journalism at the University of Connecticut.
Two words caught Keely Santa Lucia's eye when she glanced at a newspaper box on October 20. Two words, in bold 90-point type, leading the Sunday Hartford Courant. "When I first saw it," she says, "I could only see the headline: 'Heroin Town.' I knew right off the bat it was about Willimantic."
In a five-column photo under that headline, Santa Lucia saw three young women gathered under a familiar gazebo in the center of her town. All three were facing the camera, each slipping a needle into her arm.
The heroin problem in Willimantic, a New England community 40 minutes east of the capital city, was no secret in northeastern Connecticut, but the Courant series spread the news statewide. In seven stories and 47 photographs spanning more than 20 pages, the paper documented how heroin addicts live and die in Willimantic, and how the city has failed to rid itself of a problem that arrived in the old mill town decades ago.
Santa Lucia, a caterer and member of the city's board of finance, successfully fought in 1996 to end the city's controversial needle exchange for addicts, claiming it was a magnet for drug users. Now she worries that the paper's grim portrayal will hurt local businesses, discourage enrollment at the local college and perhaps derail Willimantic's revitalization efforts.
But despite all this, she also recognizes "Heroin Town" as a medicine that might help Willimantic treat a long-neglected ill. "In Willimantic, we tend to bury our head in the sand," she says. "The articles brought a serious issue to light. Now that it's out in the open maybe, finally, we'll deal with it."
That view, initially at least, was not widely shared. Response in Willimantic and around the state was overwhelmingly negative. The series' facts were not at issue, except for a few blemishes involving confused identification. Instead, critics questioned the package's taste, news value and sheer magnitude.
Readers complained that Willimantic's heroin problem wasn't news, that it was known all too well by the community. One writer called the series "city bashing under the guise of news." Others attacked the many graphic photos, including a front-page shot of a heroin user grieving over the open casket of her addict boyfriend. A brouhaha erupted after police accused the paper of staging one of the photos -- an accusation the Courant vehemently denied.
Local radio station WILI covered the reaction, interviewing the reporters who wrote the series, Tracy Gordon Fox and Bill Leukhardt. "The impact of this has been immense," WILI News Director Mike Morrissette said on the third day of the report. "Everywhere you go, from the meat counter to the shoe store, people are talking about it." At least a dozen people called the station tip line urging a public bonfire to burn copies of the Courant.
At the Chronicle, Willimantic's 11,000-circulation daily, Editor Ron Robillard struggled with how to follow up on this massive project done in his backyard by the state's largest daily. "By Tuesday, it was the talk of the town," Robillard says. "Then the story itself became the story."
Local politicians, police officers and residents criticized the series for kicking the city while it was down, for exploiting the addicts and for simply being too shocking for a family newspaper. The Chronicle ran an editorial cartoon showing a skeletal figure named "Hartford Courant" driving nails into the coffin of Willimantic with a hammer labeled "overkill."
The Courant had anticipated negative reaction. Much the same thing happened when it published "The Streets of Despair" a decade earlier, chronicling heroin use and prostitution in Hartford.
"I knew it would be controversial," says Deputy Managing Editor Barbara Roessner, who wrote the provocative "Heroin Town" headline, "but I was never nervous about it." The headline, taken from a story quote by a sociologist at a local college, "was the perfect description of the project," she says. "It's a story of a community that is saturated with heroin and has been for decades.... It was very much in proportion with the intensity of the problem there and the drama of the tale."
Some readers applauded the Courant. "I've awakened from my suburban coma," wrote one. "I think this kind of reporting does make a difference." An op-ed piece titled "Welcome to Reality," by a nurse who knew the ravages of heroin, called the series "pretty accurate."
Veteran police reporter Gordon Fox and her editor, Peter Sleight, had discussed such a series for nearly two years. Gordon Fox had covered heroin arrests and, in 2001, rode with police during a raid that seized more than 7,000 bags of the drug.
They initially planned a series of historical vignettes that would show how the heroin trade settled in Willimantic. Though the drug plagues much larger Connecticut cities like Hartford and Bridgeport, the team discovered that Willimantic's problem, in a poor, ethnically diverse city of 16,000, was way out of proportion to the city's size. "The power of the project intensified as the stories came together, as we began to see the wholeness of the landscape," Roessner says. "Heroin had infected a whole place."
Brad Clift, a streetwise photographer who had chronicled the "Streets of Despair" series, joined the reporters. Together they spent more than four months interviewing addicts, police, drug counselors and local leaders. Some addicts let their lives unfold -- and sometimes unravel -- in front of them.
Working mostly nights, reporter Gordon Fox spent days at home with her three children before venturing to seedy places in Willimantic. She'd climb a fire escape to visit a rundown rooming house for addicts that was closed for the night, then sit for hours, recording people's stories as they shot heroin. "It was the hardest assignment I've ever had," she says. "Part of you wants to rip the needle from their hand but you just can't do it." Some nights she drove home crying.
The series' central figure was 22-year-old Jessica Canwell, who bared everything from her early sexual abuse to her addiction and eventual turn to prostitution. She was featured in 16 photos that included several with her younger sister, also an addict, and others showing her caring for her boyfriend before he died of a needle-borne infection.
Once, Clift and Gordon Fox stepped out of their journalist role. Two weeks after her boyfriend's death, Canwell was sick with the same infection. The reporters drove her to the hospital. "I decided 'I'm not going to sit here and watch another person die,' " Gordon Fox says.
Canwell had been clean for a month, living in a rehab clinic, when the reporters brought her copies of the series. She says she was depressed and cried at seeing herself and her sister exposed so prominently. Still in rehabilitation, she told AJR in December she has no regrets and would do it again, even though family members have reviled her for going public. "No matter how angry or disgusted people got, it needed to be told," she says.
After the series, the Chronicle ran a "shame on us" editorial, slamming the community for ignoring the heroin problem. The same day, Gov. John G. Rowland made a pre-election stop in Willimantic with the nation's drug czar, John P. Walters, where Rowland promised $100,000 to help the state's narcotics task force combat heroin traffic and abuse. The next night, more than 300 people attended the first of two public forums in Willimantic. And by mid-December, a newly appointed task force was studying the issue.
Though the messenger was the story for a while, the message was heard.###