Journalism About Addiction Often Perpetuates Stigma. So, We’re Going to Fix It.

Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia
Uniontown, Pennsylvania. Photo: David Smith/100 Days in Appalachia

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP) or visit findtreatment.gov.

Over the past 20 years, every corner of our country has been experiencing an opioid epidemic. Tens of thousands of our neighbors, family members and friends have been taken from us. If you haven’t been personally affected, you have certainly read about it. 

But, did you know that the epidemic wasn’t limited to opioids? During that same time period, we were also experiencing an explosion of stimulant use across our country, often methamphetamine, that further strained resources, especially in rural communities. 

Before that, in the ‘80s and ‘90s, cocaine use was trendy, but crack cocaine use in Black communities was repeatedly covered as a danger to our society that “needed” to be policed. The implications of this exaggerated coverage are still felt in BIPOC communities today. The 90’s were also when tobacco executives said nicotine wasn’t addictive (it is). And before that, in the ‘60s and ‘70s, cannabis and psychedelics were “destroying” youth culture (it didn’t). Through all of those time periods, alcohol was among the leading causes of death in our country – but you’d never know it from the way the media has covered addiction. 

Taken together, no matter the substance or time, drug use is part of our culture. It has always been in the news. It will always be in the news. Whether covered on the health beat when a new treatment for substance use disorders is found, or on our fashion and lifestyle pages because of a fascination with “club drugs,” or on the crime beat when someone is arrested or unjustly dies during a drug-related arrest, we would bet that at least one story you came across today in local, state, or national news contains some intersection with drugs. This is true most days. 

But here’s the issue: While drug use has been in the news since the industry’s start, we still have a long way to go to improve how we report on drug use, treatment and recovery. How we talk about addiction doesn’t just stay on the page and isn’t forgotten once the 6 o’clock news ends. In each of the areas described above, media coverage went well beyond an explanation of the science and, as a result, negatively impacted our communities by perpetuating the harmful beliefs and policies that we are still fighting against today. 

For example, breathless coverage about “crack babies” in the ‘90s? Not a thing. But this false narrative still contributes to widespread harm in BIPOC communities. During the current opioid epidemic, we’re repeating the same mistakes when reporting on “addicted babies.” An opioid use disorder diagnosis includes compulsive drug use or seeking in-spite of negative consequences, something a baby clearly cannot do. Still, we have all seen these harmful and inaccurate phrases repeatedly used in headlines which contribute to shaming and stigmatization of pregnant women, who, as a result, are routinely denied evidence-based, lifesaving, effective and safe medication. 

First responders overdosing after touching fentanyl? Highly unlikely, as the American College of Medical Toxicology has said, but still widely discussed in the media. This contributes to hesitancy among first responders when called to respond to an overdose and delays treatment of patients with lifesaving interventions like naloxone and rescue breathing. 

All of these inaccurate, harmful narratives are widely reported by journalists, from the newsrooms of hundreds at top broadcast companies to the one or two people doing their best to keep their small town informed. But these inaccurate, harmful narratives are more than misinformation, they are also killing people in your community, as they have for the last 40+ years.  

The statement is a strong one, we know, but we also do not believe that the journalists you rely on are intentionally causing harm. Ask any reporter what their goal is and most will tell you it’s to serve the communities they live in and to provide them with the information they need to make decisions and live a better life. 

Of course, the media should be warning people about the dangers associated with drug use! They want to protect you. Yet, most journalists have little training on how to report on addiction and sometimes no access to the professionals that can help them understand the scientific complexities of this disease. This often leads journalists to rely on people who are not addiction medicine or research experts, who lack the necessary training and expertise, to respond and react to stories involving drug use, treatment, or recovery. 

These types of stories end up doing more harm than good. Real, tangible harm. Harm from not talking about evidence-based treatment and recovery. Harm from only focusing on problems and skipping right past the decades of research that offer us solutions. Harm from the perpetuation of false, negative and reductive narratives that further stigmatize people who use drugs and create barriers to accessing treatment and recovery resources. So, we decided to do something about it. 

Not just do something about it, but really do something about it. As National Recovery Month comes to an end, the teams at 100 Days in Appalachia and the Opioid Policy Institute are launching an effort to help journalists access the training, resources and experts they need to tell better stories about this topic year round. Reporting on Addiction is a collaborative model developed to improve reporting by working with journalists, one that relies on “calling in” instead of “calling out,” one informed by diverse groups of stakeholders, including journalists themselves, to make sure our communities have access to the evidence-backed information they need. 

Over the past year, we’ve had discussions with academic experts, addiction medicine treatment providers, people with lived experience, people in the judicial system, and people in the media to understand how we can support newsrooms who are limited on time and limited on resources with the things they need so we can make an impact. Part of the solution is changing the language to match our current understanding of addiction as a progressive disease characterized by compulsive drug use and seeking despite negative consequences. The words we use matter. Part of the solution is changing the narratives to include more stories about hope, about treatment and recovery, and about the evidence. Part of the solution is encouraging the use of a story tag that can direct readers to treatment resources and let them know that recovery from addiction is possible.

Based on the discussions we created a hub of resources that will house our training materials for journalism students and newsrooms. It will provide evidence-based information in readily accessible formats tailored to journalists working multiple beats: One that helps reporters and students learn about how science has moved with addiction to understanding this condition as a disease (this change happened 30+ years ago, but still is not seen in most reporting). One that leverages some of the brightest scientists and clinicians in our country who have been working on these issues for decades and puts them in front of you, the reader, talking about what they know best about drug use, treatment and recovery. One that will give journalism professors access to off the shelf curriculum to help teach their students to cover this topic before they even get their first job. This is a start, but there will be much more.

You might be thinking – great, another example of politically correct, cancel culture. But it’s not politically correct, it’s just correct. And we promise, we’ll stay up on the research to make sure we continue to reflect our current understanding of addiction and we’ll let you know why things change. It is science after all, it’s not set in stone. But we’re going to do the best we can to make sure readers have access to the facts, not just opinions about addiction. We are doing all this for you, because the chance that you know someone who uses drugs, is in treatment or recovery is pretty high. No matter where you live. No matter who you are. 

It’s long past time to have better reporting on addiction, join the effort or provide feedback at ReportingonAddiction.org.

Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP) or visit findtreatment.gov.

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