Commentary: Here’s How You Can Improve Reporting on Addiction

Dr. Jonathan JK Stoltman speaks to a group of West Virginia University journalism students about the importance of language choice in stories about addiction. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/West Virginia University
Dr. Jonathan JK Stoltman speaks to a group of West Virginia University journalism students about the importance of language choice in stories about addiction. Photo: Justin Hayhurst/West Virginia University

We’ve all seen the call to action: “If you or someone you know is in crisis, call the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.” This is an omnipresent sentence whenever the media mentions suicide. 

You see it at the beginning or end of a news story, or before the credits of our favorite television shows and made-for-TV movies. Even if you don’t have it memorized, you recognize it. You’ve seen it hundreds of times. And more importantly, it’s always there if someone who needs help happens to be reading the article or watching the TV program. 

This hasn’t always been the case. In fact, this referral to support services only started in the past 20 years in response to a public health crisis: suicide contagion. 

Reporting at the time had a problem: It sensationalized suicide and did nothing to help people find resources. There was a growing body of research about the harms associated with how the media reports on suicide. 

In response, a group of researchers, activists and journalists came together to create solutions that led to a change in reporting. One of the many recommendations was the call to action referring people to resources. The inclusion of this now ubiquitous statement is an essential step towards ethical and responsible reporting because it helps people or their support system – their friends and family members – know that help is readily available and gives them direction as to how to find it. 

This small sentence signaled a massive change. For a long time, the media would just report the death. That’s it. Now, they are helping people know there is help available, something crucial to preventing suicide. 

Fast forward to today. You’ve likely seen dozens of articles in the past year about another public health crisis: addiction and drug overdose deaths. Reporting, once again,  has a problem: it sensationalizes drug use and addiction and does nothing to help people find resources. Rarely does the media let readers know that evidence-based treatment – shown through decades of scientific research to be life-saving for many people– is available. There is a growing body of research about the harms associated with how the media reports on addiction, repeating the same mistakes made 20 years ago when reporting on suicide. The difference, however, is no one, no group has stepped forward to not just call for change, but to help educate them about the problem and work together to find solutions.

It struck me a few years ago that, much like the sentence used to point people toward suicide prevention resources, a similar, simple call to action could direct people to addiction treatment resources. Over the past 8 years, four of which were spent completing my PhD at West Virginia University, I have been working as an opioid addiction research scientist. During that time, I have closely followed how the media talks about addiction. You may have noticed, they talk about it a lot, but this coverage always left me asking: Why don’t we point people towards life-saving resources in all articles that mention drug use, treatment, or recovery? 

This need to let people know help is out there became all the more of a passion when a close family member was impacted by the opioid epidemic. I wanted so badly to change a culture that contributed to them feeling alone and that the world was against them. To change a culture that presented so many barriers to evidence-based treatment. To change a culture that implicitly and explicitly said they were less than now that they injected opioids. In life, they fought hard against all this, but my family member didn’t live to see this culture change. Their story redoubled my commitment to finding a solution. 

But how would one person accomplish something so large as changing how the whole media reports on addiction? Regular Tuesday stuff. It seemed a bit quixotic.

I knew I couldn’t do anything about this on my own. And I didn’t want to. To do it right, no one person should do this. To really do it right, I needed to hear from people with lived experience, other people in the field, and people in the media to understand how to best enact change.

So, in the summer of 2020 during an interview about stigma and addiction reporting, I floated the idea to 100 Days in Appalachia. Together, we decided to be the change. 

Over the past year, our team has dug into the research on addiction stigma and stigma reduction efforts in allied fields. We met with diverse stakeholders that included dozens of addiction treatment providers, researchers, people with lived experience, and members of the media. From this work, we built Reporting on Addiction, a collaborative project that provides training and resources to change how newsrooms from The New York Times to your local Fox affiliate report on this topic.

Through Reporting on Addiction, we are redefining ethical and responsible reporting to say if you’re going to report on stories related to addiction or drug use in your community, you must talk about treatment and recovery in the same story. Anything less is incomplete. A dereliction of duty. Regardless of the focus of the story itself, reporters must let people know help is out there. Recovery from addiction is possible.

One small way to do this is by using our call to action. With the help of our focus groups, we developed a sentence for the media to include at the beginning and/or end of their coverage:

Recovery from addiction is possible. 

For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline 

(1-800-662-HELP) or visit findtreatment.gov.

It’s not a perfect sentence. We’re not even saying it’s the best sentence. We have a few other ones we’ll release on our website that convey similar but slightly different messages of hope. But this sentence is a start. And it’s one that your local newsrooms can include right now in all of their reporting on addiction. 

This may all sound simple, but it’s actually a massive change in how we think about how the journalism industry covers addiction. For a long time, the media would just report on the deaths or trials. That’s it. Now they are helping people know there is help available, something crucial to connecting people to find treatment.

Whether, like me, you’re one of the millions of Americans who have been directly impacted by the current opioid epidemic or maybe you’ve been impacted by one of the country’s many past drug crises, we all need to call on our local journalists and editors to do better in their reporting. To help inform their community that help is available. Ask them to take this first step. By including this sentence in their reporting, journalists have the ability to help people see that they’re not alone, that there is hope for their future, and even, hopefully, save lives. 

Jonathan JK Stoltman is director of the Opioid Policy Institute and co-founder of Reporting on Addiction, a collaborative project with 100 Days in Appalachia. In 2019, he completed his PhD in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from West Virginia University and has worked as a researcher focusing on addiction treatment and recovery since 2013.

Note for editor’s: Please include the hyperlink to findtreatment.gov when you can. In visual stories, please leave this story tag on the screen for at least 6 seconds.

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