Philip Seymour Heroin: The New York Times Coverage of the Actor’s Death and Addiction to Heroin

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Philip Seymour Hoffman died from an apparent heroin overdose. The phrase “apparent heroin overdose” was used in five out of the six articles examined for this paper, and was published on The New York Times (NYT) website. Each article is framed with the “apparent overdose,” and several go as far as noting statistics about the heroin trade. The stories from the NYT praise Hoffman as an actor, but the praise is undercut by an ongoing emphasis on heroin and how he died. The articles focus on how he battled drug addiction the majority of his life, and how his death illustrates the larger problem of heroin use/addiction; moreover, the salience of heroin as a social issue in the articles may have lead to the arrests of several people and has the potential to influence heroin-related death prevention legislation to combat America's flawed drug policies.

Hoffman played troubled characters and was troubled himself. He was known to have fought with drug addiction, and reports say he checked into a rehabilitation center in 2013 (2014). Playing dark and despicable characters, Hoffman is said to have made unlikable characters likable. It is possible that, by being troubled and afflicted with drug use, Hoffman was able to tap into the disturbing psyche of many of the characters he portrayed. One film critic writes, “Mr. Hoffman’s way… — took him further and deeper than most of his colleagues would be willing to venture” (Scott, 2014). The writers for the Times want readers to know that Hoffman was a great talent, but suffered throughout his life. It was reported that he attended AA-type meetings over several years (Healy & Cieply, 2014). The articles attribute the word “struggle” with Hoffman’s life and his ongoing battle with drug addiction. One article says Hoffman was “long know to struggle with drug addiction” (2014). Another, in reference to the packages of drugs found in Hoffman’s apartment, said the packages were “a grim window into Mr. Hoffman’s personal struggle with a resurgent addiction” (Goodman, 2014). The NYT wants the readers to think about the lifelong trouble he had with drugs, and how he paid the ultimate price for it; his death and memory is irrevocably tied to heroin.

Since Hoffman died from an “apparent drug overdose,” and was found with a syringe in his left arm, the NYT spent much of its coverage depicting the heroin paraphernalia found in his apartment, and the rise of heroin use in New York City and beyond. One article claims there were dozens of branded, small packages in Hoffman’s apartment that will sell for around six dollars a package (Goodman, 2014). The public is interested in the circumstances surrounding a public figure's death, and the New York Times gives the readers what they want. The stories focus on heroin, detailing statistics about the rise in the heroin trade and consequential seizers; the D.E.A’s New York office seized one hundred forty-four kilograms of heroin last year, and the seizers increased sixty-seven percent over that last four years (Goodman, 2014). Hoffman’s death was not only an opportunity for the NYT to report breaking news, but to also illustrate a growing social problem. Heroin is becoming more popular to use, and cheaper to buy, and Hoffman’s death put the issue in the spotlight. There is mention of a powerful additive, fentanyl, which is used to cut or dilute heroin. The additive is connected to twenty-two overdose-related deaths in the state of Pennsylvania (Goodman & Fitzsimmons, 2014). It turns out that Hoffman’s fatal dose of heroin did not contain fentanyl, but the fact that it is mentioned brings the NYT’s agenda into focus; it’s no longer about Hoffman’s death, but more about the larger problem of heroin use and addiction. With heroin at the forefront of the agenda set by the NYT, the coverage may influence attitudes towards heroin use and prevention.

The NYT had to write about Hoffman’s death; it’s who they are and what they do; therefore, they had to set an agenda. The agenda was to emphasize the heroin trade, and as a result, people were arrested. An article aptly titled, “Four People Arrested as Part of Inquiry Into Hoffman’s Death,” details how information gathered from Hoffman’s death investigation lead to the arrests. The arrests included a middle-aged man who had no previous arrests and may have otherwise gone unnoticed (Goodman, 2014). But, the media attention of Hoffman’s death triggered a vigorous investigation, along with an anonymous tip-off the street, to bring people in. It is safe to assume that people die from heroin overdoses all the time. When they die, obviously, there is an investigation. But, the NYPD made arrests four days after Hoffman died – and they may not even be linked to supplying him with the drugs that killed him (Goodman, 2014). Since the New York Times spent a great deal of time writing about the issue of heroin use and the heroin trade, and his death was high profile, the arrests are an indirect implication of the agenda set by the NYT. An editorial was also written about preventing heroin deaths. In the article, the doctor who wrote it asserts that many heroin-related deaths are preventable (Hoffman, 2014). This adds to the outcome of the NYT’s agenda, perhaps changing the perception of heroin use and how to deal with it.

The NYT’s coverage of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death thrust the issue of heroin into the spotlight. They painted the portrait of Hoffman as a talented, yet troubled man who struggled with drug addiction his entire life. Heroin is repeatedly mentioned in the articles to not only describe the circumstances surrounding his death but to showcase the growing social problem of heroin use in the United States. The agenda set by the NYT created a nearly instant effect on the populous; four people were arrested in relation to the actor’s death, and an editorial was eventually published to argue for legislation that could make heroin-related deaths preventable. The NYT pushed the public to think about heroin, and it will have lasting effects.

References

Goodman, J. (2014, February 3). Hoffman’s Heroin Points to Surge in Grim Trade. The New York Times. Retrieved February 25, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/nyregion/hoffmans-heroin-points-to-surge-in-grim-trade.html

Goodman, J., & Fitzsimmons, E. (2014, February 4). Four People Arrested as Part of Inquiry Into Hoffman’s Death. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/05/nyregion/test-of-substance-in-hoffmans-home-finds-heroin-without-additive.html

Goodman, J. (2014, February 5). 3 Arrested on Drug Charges as Police Pursue Hoffman Case. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/06/nyregion/philip-seymour-hoffman-case.html?_r=0

Healy, P., & Cieply, M. (2014, February 3). Hollywood Was Just One of His Stages. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/movies/hollywood-was-just-one-of-his-stages.html

Hoffman, R. (2014, February 6). How to Stop Heroin Deaths. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/07/opinion/how-to-stop-heroin-deaths.html

Philip Seymour Hoffman Said to Be Found With Syringe. (2014, February 2). The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/03/nyregion/philip-seymour-hoffman-said-to-be-found-with-syringe.html

Scott, A. (2014, February 3). An Actor Who Made Unhappiness a Joy to Watch. The New York Times. Retrieved February 26, 2014, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/04/movies/a-o-scott-on-philip-seymour-hoffman.html