The first thing that struck me was the empathy.

I was reading a piece from the exhaustive Baltimore Banner series on overdose deaths in Baltimore, by my colleagues Alissa Zhu, Nick Thieme and Jessica Gallagher, as part of The New York Times Local Investigation Fellowship. It was about the stupefying number of local Black men from their mid-50s to early 70s who died of overdoses.

It wasn’t just this terrible fact about the epidemic that set the story and series apart for me. It was that these Black people — city residents who are often economically disadvantaged — were written about as human beings. They had names like William, Glenn and Richard. They were presented as people that were loved and missed, rather than a hulking mass of moral failing serving as a cautionary societal tale for all those who live outside of the confines of the community.

We were supposed to feel sadness for the loss of these men, rather than fear them. That’s strikingly different from the way Black addiction has historically been depicted. Hindsight is 20/20, so there’s been a lot written in the last decade about the absolute mess that media, fed by the blatant racism baked into society and politics, made of the coverage of the crack epidemic and any drugs associated with Black and non-white people.

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A 2016 paper by Julie Netherland and Helena B. Hansen called “The War on Drugs That Wasn’t: Wasted Whiteness, ‘Dirty Doctors,’ and Race in Media Coverage of Prescription Opioid Misuse,” analyzed 100 articles published from 2001 to 2011 and found “a consistent contrast between criminalized urban black and Latino heroin injectors with sympathetic portrayals of suburban white prescription opioid users.”

In a 2008 analysis of more than 100 articles on the abuse of crack and methamphetamine, University of Missouri, St. Louis doctoral student Jennifer E. Cobbina found that “media reports on crack cocaine frequently referenced African Americans and depicted the drug in conjunction with violent crime.” Cobbina, now a professor at Michigan State University’s School of Criminal Justice, also noted that “articles on methamphetamine were more likely to reference poor Whites and associate this drug as a public health problem.”

In contrast, this Banner series, based in a predominantly Black city and referencing many Black addicts, writes about these people like … people. It touched me because that’s not been the case, and I am not just saying that because I work with the publication featuring this work. The Palm Beach Post, where I spent the bulk of my career, released an excellently researched and written investigation of the opioid crisis in 2018. But one of the writers on the project agreed with me that at the height of the crack epidemic in the ‘80s and ‘90s, they could never have imagined a paper publishing such a sympathetic piece about those addicts.

The disconnect may be that the people writing at most mainstream newspapers did not relate, say, to Black urban dwellers or poor white kids in trailers doing meth in the same way as the subjects of the opioid crisis. Because newsrooms and their decision makers remain largely white and affluent, it took the mass addiction of people who looked like them, lived near them and went to church with them for the general media to present this drug epidemic as a tragedy of such harrowing scale.

Make no mistake: The crisis is indeed a failure of the health care system in our very wealthy country, and an indictment of the rampant greed of drug companies. The issue has spawned several movies and documentaries, including the excellent “Dopesick” and “Painkiller,” the latter of which depicts a fever dream of villainous drug company president Richard Sackler literally dancing through the mansion bought on the backs of OxyContin users.

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But those movies tend to feature white protagonists — hard-working people who became addicted to their pain medication after accidents and issues that were not their fault. These are people just like you, the stories seemed to say. Except they weren’t like me. The addicts who looked like me had been depicted as hazy monsters, heads lolling as they sprawled on stoops and sidewalks. Those depictions influenced how they were treated. Or more specifically, white communities got treatment. Black ones were just dealt with.

In 2017, Vox’s German Lopez wrote an infuriating and comprehensive piece titled “When A Drug Epidemic’s Victim’s Are White,” which detailed the difference in public attitude and policy proposals between the opioid crisis, which “has disproportionally affected white Americans,” and the crack epidemic, whose victims were largely Black. Because of the segregated nature of the country, he wrote, majority-white lawmakers were much more likely to see addicts that look like them as objects of compassion.

Ithaca, New York’s then-mayor Svante Myrick, who is biracial, told Lopez that his Black residents had noticed. He said their attitude was, “‘Oh, when it was happening in my neighborhood it was ‘lock ‘em up.’ Now that it’s happening in the [largely white, wealthy] Heights, the answer is to use my tax dollars to fund treatment centers. Well, my son could have used a treatment center in 1989, and he didn’t get one.’”

After decades of a media and legal narrative that one group is deserving of rehabilitation and forgiveness and the other of punishment, it makes sense that young people absorb and internalize that message, coming to believe the worst about others and themselves.

The legal and reproductive rights journalist Imani Gandy, a Black adoptee raised in Maryland, announced last week that she was celebrating her 50th birthday by beginning the search for her birth parents. To mark the occasion, she reposted a heartbreaking 2021 essay she’d written for the ReWire news group. Coming of age in the late ‘80s, she wrote, “the news was saturated with alarmist stories about crack babies, who the Washington Post called ‘a bio-underclass; a generation of physically damaged cocaine babies whose biological inferiority is stamped at birth.’”

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Though Gandy had no proof other than her adoption as an infant and the color of her skin, that saturated narrative filled in the blanks. “You see, I had convinced myself that I was a crack baby,” she confessed starkly. The truth, which she discovered as an adult, was startling. “As it turns out, I actually was born to a Clair Huxtable-type—a Clair Huxtable-type who felt she was too young when she was pregnant with me. I wasn’t a ‘crack baby’ after all.”

Words are powerful. And in this case, they affected the self-image of a Black woman who created her personal life story based on the words written about people who look like her. We as journalists have a responsibility to look past our own BS and bias and remember how those words impact not just awards committees and each other, but the people we’re writing about. I think The Banner’s stories are doing that.

I am grateful, but empathy is not enough. Just as those early stories on crack and opioids inspired policy changes both good and bad, these stories and the work that my colleagues put into it will be useless if it stops with “Oh, isn’t this sad?” It has to go further — to the way we cover treatment financially, the way we legislate solutions and the way we provide care.

But this is a start.