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For the Social Good

Reporting on and Changing the Stigma of Addiction

Written by Erica Lindsay (BSJ, 2004; BFA 2008), WVU Reed College of Media Director of Marketing and Communications

Ashton Marra remembers a specific story that National Public Radio published in 2020 about the opioid crisis in West Virginia.

“The gist was basically that West Virginia has an opioid crisis, and they don’t care. They’re not doing anything,” said Marra, a teaching assistant professor in the WVU Reed College of Media and executive editor at 100 Days in Appalachia. “I wanted 100 Days to respond to that article in some way.”

Marra reached out to Jonathan J.K. Stoltman for help. They had met the previous year when Marra heard Stoltman on West Virginia Public Broadcasting and invited him to speak to journalism students about the harmful effects of some of the media’s language related to substance use disorder. At the time, Stoltman was a psychology Ph.D. student at WVU and was exploring ways to improve journalism in this space, primarily by creating a statement on ways people can access treatment and sharing it with newsrooms for inclusion at the end of related stories.

“I was helping him make connections in the industry, but the more we talked about it, the more we kind of realized that there’s just no help for journalists at all,” Marra said. “So it started snowballing into a much bigger idea.”

Before long, Marra and Stoltman had added team members Dr. Mishka Terplan of the Opioid Policy Institute and Kristen Uppercue (BSJ, 2019; MS IMC 2021), deputy editor of special projects at 100 Days in Appalachia. Together, they began conducting focus groups with journalists from all mediums at all levels, including brand new journalists at the Charleston Gazette-Mail in West Virginia, veteran Pulitzer Prize-winning journalists, and those from national outlets like CNN and Good Morning America. They also pulled together focus groups of experts through training – doctors, clinicians, researchers – and experts through experience – those who are in long-term recovery, family members, people in active addiction, peer recovery coaches and even a federal drug court judge.

From these focus groups, the team was able to glean information on the challenges from a journalist’s perspective and the problems with media coverage according to medical experts and those with lived experiences.

“Drug use has been a topic in the news for decades, and it’s often reported in inaccurate and harmful ways, but this reporting is generally not malicious – most journalists just haven’t had training on the topic, and they don’t have access to reliable sources for accurate information because medical experts are apprehensive about speaking to the media.” ASHTON MARRA

Marra and Stoltman officially launched Reporting on Addiction in September 2021 – during National Recovery month. Since then, they have launched curriculum at 13 colleges and universities in 11 states, have delivered trainings and presentations to dozens of professional newsrooms and press associations and have provided media training to addiction medicine and science experts across the country. They have also developed research-based reporting guides and a searchable database of addiction subject matter experts from across the country.

Their customized trainings for journalists cover the most up-to-date understanding of addiction science, the role of stigma and discrimination, and tailored information related to media organizations’ respective cities, states or regions. The trainings for addiction medicine and science experts include information on how media work, best practices for interacting with journalists and tips for disseminating information to a broader audience.

Reporting on addiction Marra presenting

ASHTON MARRA teaches news writing, video storytelling and community-focused journalism in the WVU Reed College of Media. As executive editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, she oversees the work of a team of editors, contributors and reporters across the region. She has spent more than a decade working as a professional journalist for both public media and commercial news outlets on local, state and national platforms, including NPR and ABC News. She is a two-time graduate of the WVU Reed College of Media.

In addition to implementing curriculum with its inaugural class of journalism instructors at WVU, Kent State University, Slippery Rock University, Eastern Kentucky University and Utah State University, Marra and Stoltman have conducted workshops and one-on-one support for college newspapers, professional newsrooms, state press associations and at such national conferences as the Rx Summit, College of Problems on Drug Dependence, American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence, and American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.

“Journalists play a crucial role in public perception of addiction,” said Stoltman, who is now the director of the Opioid Policy Institute based in Grand Rapids, Michigan. “When media professionals are inaccurate or use language and themes that have been shown to increase stigma and discrimination, their reporting can do more harm than good – real harm that further stigmatizes already marginalized populations, contributes to drug-related deaths and backwards policy.”

This subject matter is personal for the Reporting on Addiction co-founders. Stoltman often addresses his personal family experience with substance use during trainings, and Marra’s entire career as a journalist has involved covering addiction, even though she’s never been a health reporter – first as a reporter at the CBS affiliate in Bridgeport when “meth” (i.e. methamphetamine) was taking hold, and then covering the West Virginia Legislature as they grappled with legislation and policy to address the opioid crisis.

“Then, there’s this additional layer of being from West Virginia and being an Appalachian and recognizing that this was the epicenter of the opioid epidemic, and now we know that it was forced upon us by the pharmaceutical industry, and then we were left in crisis and forced to figure out how to fix it on our own,” Marra said. “And now, we know there are solutions out there in the world, but why doesn’t my community have access to them?”

Marra worries about the harm journalists have caused over the years by leading the five o’clock news with images and headlines that perpetuate stereotypes, and she hopes that her work through Reporting on Addiction helps media professionals better frame stories in a way that helps the public understand addiction as a disease.

Reporting on addiction panel

Left to right: Ashton Marra; Marc Jackson, transition agent with Jobs and Hope West Virginia; and Laura Lander, associate professor, social work section chief and addiction therapist at WVU Medicine, talk to students and community members at the Media Innovation Center. Photo by Jesse Wright.

“We know we’re playing the long game. Change will not come overnight, but we’re positioning young people to be leaders in that change,” Marra said. “It feels good to know we’re really doing something, and I hope we start to see a shift in the media that, in turn, shifts public perception and ultimately saves lives.” 

Visit to access resources including the expert database, to apply for a customized training, to learn more about Reporting on Addiction or to contact members of the team. 

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



Ashton Marra was one of 11 journalists to be named a 2023 Solutions Journalism Network Complicating the Narratives (CTN) Fellow. She will use the fellowship funding to award microgrants through Reporting on Addiction to journalists across the country, including both freelance and those working for media news outlets, to produce stories that complicate the narrative of addiction treatment and recovery. She is also working to create a style guide with tips on how to cover addiction and recovery using solutions journalism.