Reporting on Opioids in the Media

The general news media can be a vitally important ally in helping to educate the public, increasing awareness and disseminating information about substance use prevention, treatment and recovery support resources. However, as opioid-related media coverage has grown, so have a number of mischaracterizations about the nature of opioid addiction and its treatment. Well-meaning intentions can quickly become destructive if care isn’t taken to eliminate stigmatizing language choices and images that promote disdain rather than empathy for individuals and families struggling with a substance use disorder. Fear of being judged and/or discriminated against can prevent people from getting the help they need.

Guidelines for Responsible Reporting

  • Addiction is a chronic disease, not a character flaw. Repeated opioid use causes rapid, observable changes in the brain. A person who uses opioids repeatedly needs to take these drugs just to feel “normal.” Without opioids, the brain’s chemical balance is disrupted, and agonizing symptoms of withdrawal and craving set in.
  • Addiction is a treatable medical condition. Just like effective treatments exist for other medical conditions such as heart disease and diabetes, there is clear scientific consensus that medication-assisted treatment (e.g. methadone, buprenorphine and naltrexone) combined with traditional counseling is highly effective in promoting wellness among persons with opioid use disorders. These FDA-approved medications can prevent symptoms of withdrawal and drug cravings without producing feelings of euphoria. Patients engaged in MAT are more likely to adhere to a treatment regimen, less likely to relapse and overdose.
  • Using medication to treat addiction is not “replacing one drug with another.” Any treatment approach which allows a person to work, raise a family, fulfill social roles without impairment, and of course stay alive, should be welcomed and applauded.
  • Avoid using stigmatizing language such as “junkie,” “druggie,” or “addict.” Person-first language (e.g. “a person with an opioid use disorder”) suggests that the individual has a problem that can be addressed. By contrast, labeling someone a “drug abuser” can be de-humanizing and implies the person is the problem.
  • Avoid sensational photographs and other images that depict active use (e.g. syringes piercing skin) or that show individuals in compromising positions (e.g. unconscious, behind the wheel of a car). Such images can be a strong trigger for persons in recovery and inadvertently shame individuals into not seeking help.
  • Avoid sensational or fear-based language. Referring to emerging drug threats as “newer,” “bigger,” “scarier,” or “unlike anything ever seen before” can be perceived as inauthentic by people who need help.
  • Avoid describing a urine screening result as “clean” or “dirty.” Instead, use “positive” or “negative” to avoid inadvertently implying a judgment of good versus bad.
  • Don’t assume readers/viewers/listeners know where to turn for help. Make it a habit to include local treatment and recovery resources at the end of every story. The State of Ohio also maintains a toll-free help line at (877) 275-6364 and an online treatment locator — www.emeraldjennyfoundation.org — for anyone seeking help.
  • Your local ADAMH Board is an excellent resource for identifying individuals and families with lived experience to enhance your story by “putting a face on the issue.” Visit the map on the Ohio Association of County Behavioral Health Authorities' website for contacts.