Covering the opioid crisis

Editor-in-Chief Steve Cornwell goes behind the scenes of The Dialog’s coverage of the overdose crisis

One of the biggest stories that The Dialog followed in 2017 was the ongoing opioid overdose crisis, and efforts to stop it—some official, and others unsanctioned.

I became aware of Jonathan Johnston, a George Brown College (GBC) culinary graduate who died from a fentanyl overdose in April of 2016, after reading about him in the St. Catharines Standard, a newspaper from his hometown. 

Jonathan’s life and death was immediately captivating and utterly tragic. By all accounts he was a driven and rising star in Toronto’s culinary scene, as well as a revered eldest brother and son in the large Johnston family. 

Jonathan Johnston was on the rise as a chef, until a lethal dose of fentanyl took his life. Photo: Susan Flores

But Jonathan also had trouble controlling his use of substances, and was one of the 2,458 opioid-related deaths in Canada in 2016.

Speaking to the next of kin in these situations is challenging, and in approaching Jonathan’s mother Jennifer, for an interview, I anticipated at best being rejected. At worst, I wondered if Jennifer and her family might call me an ambulance chaser or grief merchant. 

 But Jennifer and her daughter Sarah graciously walked me through their lives with Jonathan and the aftermath of his untimely death. It wasn’t easy for me to ask the questions and hear the responses, so I can imagine it was very challenging for them. 

Their accounts made the story, which I hope is a humanizing if horrible account of the stakes of the ongoing overdose crisis in Canada, and elsewhere. The crisis has brought many individuals, communities and institutions into the fray to address overdoses. 

After Jonathan’s death, his mother Jennifer has become a harm reduction advocate. Photo: Steve Cornwell / The Dialog

Lidianny Botto, a reporter-editor at The Dialog, produced several stories to highlight the efforts of harm reduction volunteers in Moss Park, who set up an overdose prevention site, north of St. James campus in August. These volunteers, have been working to ensure a measure of safety for folks at risk of overdosing, and done so without the protections of a legally sanctioned site. With the addition of a winterized trailer in November, they are prepared to continue their work into the winter.

Zoe Dodd, one of the coordinators at Moss Park’s Unsanctioned overdose prevention site, prepared the trailer to start attending people. Photo: Lidianny Botto / The Dialog.

Botto was also the first to break the news that GBC’s first-aid staff were being trained to use naloxone, a drug which can reverse the effects of an opioid overdose. Over the following month, the story of the college’s naloxone policy developed rapidly.

The Dialog learned that the staff from security and student life were trained to administer naloxone. Yet, we also learned that the college was not allowing staff to use the anti-overdose treatment. 

When I was fact-checking this, and with a story ready to publish, I learned that the college had softened its position. Catherine Drum, the college’s interim manager of environmental health, safety and wellness, told me that there was no legal reason preventing the college from having a policy on administering naloxone, and that if GBC staff were to treat an overdose with the drug, they would be acting on their own accord.

First aid staff at George Brown College will be taking naloxone training this fall. Photo: Lidianny Botto / The Dialog

First aid staff at George Brown College took naloxone
training this fall. Photo: Lidianny Botto / The Dialog

With another draft of the story complete, and just hours prior to sending the story to the printer, Drum revealed that the college had committed to developing a plan for staff to administer naloxone in the case of an overdose. I have never seen the main news item of a single story change so many times before publishing.

We will continue to follow this story in the new year. 

Steve Cornwell is a finalist for a John H MacDonald award for excellence in student journalism for The Life and Death of Jonathan Johnston


Covering the opioid crisis