09/04/2012 09:17 am ET Updated Sep 04, 2012

Reporting America's Drug War: Five Journalists Who Uncovered Hidden Stories Of Corruption And Child Neglect


Turn on the nightly local news and a story about drug-related crime is usually not too far away. On Monday, one New Jersey man was allegedly high on PCP and marijuana when he stabbed two children. In Chicago, police recently arrested 300 people and seized 100 guns in a three-day drug bust.

Sadly, stories like these are frequent, and can be found on any given day, in all corners of the country. They should be covered, and yet reports on isolated incidents of drug-related violence hardly provide a nuanced portrait of the country’s war on drugs and the problems stemming from it. A quarter of all prisoners in American jails have been convicted of non-violent drug-related offenses and African-Americans continue to be arrested for drug offenses in disproportionate numbers, just to name two of the issues that don’t often find their way into the news.

As media organizations struggle with fewer resources and re-organize their newsrooms, it’s easy to see how in-depth reporting about the broader implications of addiction or the impact of the drug trade in local communities can get the short shrift. Still, there are some reporters who have strived to do just that.

  • Five years after it was originally published, The Los Angeles Times series “Orphans of Addiction” was still making waves. Reporter Sonia Nazario and photographer Clarence Williams followed the children of drug addicts for five months. They witnessed as a heroin addict hit his son and a three-year old went over 24 hours without getting anything to eat.

    While the two-part report raised ethical questions about whether journalists should intervene when seeing endangered children, it also brought "nationwide attention to this largely hidden problem" — one that was overlooked by drug prohibition and enforcement policies. After the piece was published, the three-year old was placed into foster care and the Los Angeles County Board of Supervisors initiated reforms to better identify children in substance abusing families.

    According to Nazario, the director of the Department of Children and Family Services said that the series "will forever alter the landscape of how people see children who are abused and neglected." She was a 1998 finalist for feature writing for the series, and Williams won for feature photography.
  • Activists say that the demand for drugs in America has spurred the growth of cartels in South America. In Mexico, Anabel Hernández spent years investigating the ties between drug traffickers, public officials and the military — despite the threats against journalists' lives. Hernandez said she became the target of an assassination plot by the federal police after the publication of her book “Los senores del narco” in 2010. She was given 24-hour protection by the National Human Rights Commission, but refused to accept the United States’ offer of political asylum or leave Mexico. “I constantly fear for my health and the health of my family, but the fear only drives me and lets me know that I’m on the right path,” Hernández said at the time. “I have role to carry out here.”

These three cases highlighted vastly different aspects of America's multi-faceted war on drugs. But in all three, it was journalists who held public officials accountable and opened doors for reform. That work will remain vital as critics continue to skewer the country's drug policies and as President Obama reportedly plans to scale back the decades-long war on drugs if he wins a second-term.

Anabel Hernández certainly seems to think so. On Monday, she was awarded the 2012 Golden Pen of Freedom award. In her speech, she called on journalists — not government — to combat the corruption and violence in her country.

“Today Mexican society is in need of brave and honest journalists who are ready to fight and I believe that the international community and world media share this responsibility to deeply consider the reality of the situation in Mexico and assist us in achieving our goals,” she said.