Although the New York Times loves a good, unmitigated drug scare, its Sunday front-page story on methadone deaths was unusually balanced. Past Times coverage of the painkiller Oxycontin often included stories without a single quote from a pain patient who wasn’t a drug abuser (actually, the majority of patients). But this piece spotlighted patients who were helped as well as those who were harmed, showing that opioid drugs like methadone and Oxycontin aren’t just evil killers that needed to be restricted as much as possible.
Could the story have looked into the role the media played in driving doctors to prescribe methadone instead of the safer Oxycontin after the press demonized that drug? That would have given some much-needed perspective to prescription abuse problems, albeit at the expense of implicating the media, including the New York Times itself.
Could it have placed more emphasis on the fact that the vast majority of methadone deaths do not occur among people who take the drug as prescribed? Yes – the failure to tease out the numerical difference between death due to mixing methadone with other drugs and death due to methadone alone makes it difficult to determine whether more addicts are abusing methadone or more pain patients are suffering from accidental overdoses.
Could the Times have acknowledged the difficulty many patients have with getting doctors to prescribe opioids for chronic pain at all? Absolutely.
But including both sides of the story is a welcome change from prior coverage, and perhaps it marks the belated recognition that demonizing particular drugs one after another is not a sensible strategy for covering the issue.