Alcoholism: Its Origins, Consequences and Costs: A Reporter's Journey into This Story Results in Lessons Learned-And a Pulitzer Prize. (Reporting on Health)

By Newhouse, Eric | Nieman Reports, Spring 2003 | Go to article overview

Alcoholism: Its Origins, Consequences and Costs: A Reporter's Journey into This Story Results in Lessons Learned-And a Pulitzer Prize. (Reporting on Health)


Newhouse, Eric, Nieman Reports


My job is to amplify the voices of those who often go unheard. It is vital that everyone understands how our laws and policies actually affect people's lives, so a large part of my work as a journalist has been to help people voice concerns and express fears about circumstances they confront. Recently my reporting took me from Skid Row to the state prison to mental health hospitals as I explored alcoholism. Along the way, I came to understand more fully how alcohol connects these three public places and institutions and how future brain research might lead to solutions for some of the behaviors we now label as normally abnormal--unacceptable conditions that we have come to accept.

This odyssey began four years ago when I proposed doing a conventional, weeklong series of stories on alcoholism for the Great Falls (Mont.) Tribune. Other editors thought my original proposal didn't address some aspects of the situation, so Executive Editor Jim Strauss suggested expanding the series to 12 parts and publishing one part each month for the calendar year 1999.

We did just that. We called the series "Alcohol: Cradle to Grave," a title as broad as Montana's skies. It ultimately blossomed into about 50,000 words of copy--a huge commitment for a newspaper with just a score of reporters and a circulation of about 40,000 on good days. Ultimately, the series won the Pulitzer Prize for explanatory reporting in 2000.

Unearthing the Facts About Alcoholism

Not surprisingly, I learned a lot during a brutal year of meeting monthly deadlines. I wrote on subjects as diverse as fetal alcohol syndrome and addiction within our prison system. I shared with readers what I learned about the psychological harm of growing up in an alcoholic household and the physical damage alcohol does to human bodies. Among the other lessons my reporting unearthed are these:

Alcoholism is a medical disease. Although social stresses play an important role in a person becoming an alcoholic, alcoholism tends to run in families in which a chemical imbalance in the brain's neurotransmitters is a hereditary trait. Sons of alcoholics are four times more likely to become alcoholics themselves, even if they are raised in foster homes by nonalcoholic parents. Researchers have also bred lab rats indifferent to alcohol, as well as others that actively seek it out or are repulsed by it.

I talked with many alcoholics who vividly remember the first drink they ever took. They speak of it making them feel as though they fit in for the first time: Suddenly, they were brilliant, exuberant, alive. Researchers now believe that feeling occurs because alcohol hijacks the dopamine system, which is the body's natural reward center. Dopamine normally gives a feeling of intense well-being to activities that are good for the body--things like eating well or sex or exercise (a runner's high is produced by dopamine). For some people, getting drunk gives them this extra sense of euphoria.

Alcohol is everywhere. The first installment of the series looked at a day in the life of Great Falls. At dawn I was in the Rescue Mission, then moved to a DARE classroom by 8:30, the morning "suds and soaps" hour at a bar at 9:30, an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting at 10:00, a recovery center at 10:30, municipal court at 11, a bartender training class at 11:15, and so on. During that evening, I rode with a police officer who handled eight calls: All but one involved alcohol. I came to see alcohol as an invisible river that runs through our lives uprooting people and flooding out families, much like the Missouri River that runs past our newspaper offices. Occasional floodwaters are seen as an act of nature just as excessive drinking is seen as human nature. Their ravages come as no surprise.

Alcoholism is a costly disease. One Great Falls family and marriage counselor, Wava Goetz, reviewed the 700 cases she had handled over the past five years and came to a stunning discovery. …

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