SRL Notebook: Alumnus Nick Weiss recounts story about opiate addiction

The summer before his freshman year of college at Penn State University, SRL  alumnus Nick Weiss interned at WITF in Lebanon, Pennsylvania where he produced a piece investigating opiate addiction in his hometown. At the time, it provided a window into what is now one of the largest epidemics facing our country. We followed up with Nick to find out what it was like reporting on young people affected by the opioid crisis.

Nick Weiss produced this story as part of his internship for WITF in 2015. Learn more about the opioid epidemic by visiting PBS NewsHour’s series, America Addicted.   

When I enrolled at Penn State in 2015, it was rare to meet a student from the northeast who didn’t recognize opioid addiction as an issue in their community. Some experienced the death of a loved-one, a friend, or a classmate, and others simply noticed the phenomenon as a relevant issue in their hometowns.

This topic was very close to my heart because a few weeks before, I had produced a story called “Opioid Painkillers: The Chains of Addiction” as part of my Student Reporting Labs internship at local station WITF. Being able to focus an issue as big as the opioid crisis into a single young-man’s story of overcoming his addiction is a powerful tool for change, and since realizing this I’ve been completely dedicated and obsessed with documentary storytelling.

For Britton, sharing the story of his heroin addiction helped exercise transparency and self-acceptance. For me, hearing and working on his story changed how I handle the emotions and story of my subject on screen. After this piece, I fully understood the responsibility of a documentary filmmaker when they create a sacred bond with their subject.

Unfortunately, after the film was produced, Britton suffered a relapse and experienced a rough year in 2016. He went back to treatment multiple times, and ended up moving to Florida. Though he experienced some turmoil, Britton is now nine months sober. He recently visited his girlfriend in Seattle, and is planning on going back to school for computer science.

As a junior film major in 2017, not much has changed for the better. Drug overdose deaths in the United States have continued to rise. My hometown, Lebanon, Pennsylvania, is no exception. Synthetics like fentanyl and carfentanil have driven overdose rates sky-high, and recent trends suggest this won’t change anytime soon.

Comparing my experience with the experiences of my peers put into perspective how those characters and their stories pulled me deeply into the gritty and authentic power of filmmaking. I’m very grateful for the Student Reporting Labs program for giving me the opportunity to produce “Opioid Painkillers: The Chains of Addiction.” That practice, opportunity, freedom, and guidance helped better me as a storyteller in ways that are still evident today.

Assessing growth after rewatching old work is encouraging, though it felt strange to watch the piece. Rewatching it, it’s strange seeing footage I shot and remembering how I was thinking and feeling when I captured it. I’m always been critical of my own work, and I thought about how I would do things differently as a college student. I no longer appear in my films, and I prefer a more cinematic mode of documentary storytelling. This brought me to the conclusion that I’m very interested in returning to the topic as a college student. I want to test my changes in style, and to form more sacred relationships with those affected by the crisis in a different section of Pennsylvania.

In only five years as a filmmaker, I’ve made relationships and unforgettable memories with people who have taught me invaluable things about life. I’ll never forget the moment Britton and I spoke in the parking lot of a laundromat, one I had known since I was a kid, and discussed how he used to shoot up and buy drugs there.

I want to continue to tackle the opioid crisis and to communicate to others about the lives of those changed by it to the world— it’s the least I can do in an effort to alleviate the pain caused by this epidemic. This is not a simple issue, and it requires the participation of medical professionals, researchers, law enforcement, journalists, and filmmakers alike to fully encompass and resolve this crisis as it exists today. I’m just an undergrad at Penn State, and I sound very idealistic, but that’s a product of passion.

After my internship with WITF through the Student Reporting Labs program, and after continuing to learn about the power of stories and the power I have as a storyteller, it’s impossible to mute this passion, so instead, I intend to wield it. Next semester, I’ll be interning in Los Angeles as a part of Penn State’s Hollywood Program. The opioid crisis is largely an east coast issue, but social issues exist around the world, and I’m sure I’ll find an opportunity on the west coast to tackle more important issues. I hope that this incredible opportunity projects me into a career where I can share the stories of those that inspire me to a larger audience.