At the University of Maryland’s Philip Merrill School of Journalism, students spent two semesters telling the stories of those affected by the opioid crisis in Anne Arundel County.
Bethany Swain, a professor at the journalism school, teaches an advanced video storytelling class called ViewFinder. After a semester of researching and filming, students produce a roughly hour-long documentary to highlight their reporting.
However, this project proved it needed more attention than one semester.
“Once we started working on this project, somewhere in the second half of the semester, we realized that this project was so much bigger than one semester,” Swain said. “We turned it into a year-long investigation.”
In total, 15 students worked on the project across two semesters. In April, ViewFinder will accept the Broadcast Education Association’s Best Of Festival award in Las Vegas. In addition, the project has received recognition at the Northern Short Course in Photojournalism contest and the White House News Photographers Association student contests.
The team’s goal was to share their findings with as many people as possible. In February, the documentary aired on Maryland Public Television. It is the first project from the Philip Merrill College of Journalism to appear on MPT, Swain said.
When preparing for the fall 2016 semester, Swain and a few students spent the summer in meetings with Anne Arundel County officials learning about what issues were affecting the county.
“In that meeting, we were told the county was having an overdose a day and a death a week,” said Swain, who lives in Annapolis. “That number really hit us. Again, this was back in 2016.”
Ryan Eskalis, a Maryland alumni and Severna Park native, was in the first class to work on this project.
“Being from this area, it was so shocking to find out about all of this,” Eskalis said. “Not that I didn’t know we had a drug problem, but I didn’t know how close to home it would be for me.”
One of the stories Eskalis filmed was about twin brothers who were addicted to heroin, one of whom died from an overdose. The first time he went to the family’s house, Eskalis realized they were down the street from one of his best friend’s houses.
More than a year after Eskalis stopped filming the project, he learned that the second twin also died from an overdose.
Eskalis’ filming partner, Hannah Burton, said learning about the opioid crisis was eye-opening.
“For those of us not from Maryland or not familiar with this opioid epidemic, it was a huge eye-opener. I had no experience, no knowledge about it whatsoever,” Burton said. “It was kind of crazy to me to listen to the statistics and hear of all of the people that were dying because of this.”
In fact, the number of people dying from the opioid crisis doubled during the class’ reporting, Swain said.
As of March 9, 2018, there have been 192 overdoses this year, 35 of which were fatal, according to the Maryland Department of Health. This is a 66.7 percent increase from the 21 fatal overdoses in 2017. Non-fatal overdoses, however, have decreased 6.8 percent.
“This is getting worse, it’s not getting better, and that was hard to deal with,” Swain said. “You want to think, ‘Oh, wow, we’re working hard on this project, we’re spreading the word and letting people know that this is happening and something needs to be done,’ but it’s still getting worse. Us just talking about it is not enough.”
Despite the documentary’s success, Eskalis said he feels torn.
“As proud as I am of the work we did, one of the hopes I had was that these stories would be a beacon of hope and something that people could lean on,” Eskalis said. “With [the other twin] overdosing and dying directly after all this, I kind of feel like we failed in some capacity. That was our target audience. He is the guy we not only want to hear from, but help.”
For Burton, the most rewarding part was the in-depth reporting she and her classmates did, “especially on such a delicate topic as the opioid epidemic.”
“As student journalists, sometimes it’s really hard to get officials and people in charge to listen to you and to get on board with what we’re doing,” Burton said. “I’m really proud of the perseverance and determination of my class to stick with it and to keep going.”
The documentary was not limited to users and law enforcement officers. One story followed a family that adopted three boys who were born to mothers addicted to opioids.
Henri Biayemi, who filmed the story, connected with the family on Facebook. Biayemi received honorable mention in the NPPA’s Northern Short Course contest.
“It’s an experience that I don’t think any of my journalism classes had ever given me before. Even now, I’m in the professional world and I’m working, and I still don’t have that same experience or feeling as I did in that class,” Biayemi said. “I know that class was very special, even though it was a very short time. It’s something I’ll remember forever.”
The full documentary, as well as each individual story, is available here.