WRITTEN BY ASHTON MARRA
Addiction intersects with almost every aspect of our lives. It is a health issue, but it’s also an economic development issue, an education issue, a veterans’ issue — no matter what type of media professional you are, we must learn how to compassionately and empathetically cover this topic in our communities.
Reporting on Addiction is a collaborative partnership between an addiction medicine expert and a veteran journalist that takes the latest medical science and trains professionals and students in how to use it in reporting and communications — all while keeping the demands of the workplace front and center.
Below, Teaching Assistant Professor Ashton Marra and Opioid Policy Institute Director Jonathan J.K. Stoltman share five tips on how to tell complex stories that help reduce the stigma around addiction and recovery:
REPORT ON ADDICTION AS A PUBLIC HEALTH ISSUE, NOT A CRIMINAL ONE.
Addiction, as defined by the American Medical Association, is “a treatable, chronic medical disease involving complex interactions among brain circuits, genetics, the environment and an individual’s life experiences.” People who have an addiction are no longer making a choice but are engaging in those behaviors despite the negative consequences they are experiencing.
But here is the good news: Prevention efforts and medical treatment for addiction are just as successful as those for any other chronic disease, including asthma, diabetes and some cancers.
When we as journalists and media professionals approach reporting on addiction by starting with the disease framework, we can immediately begin to reshape our narratives to explore addiction as the public health issue that it is and avoid including stigmatizing language and narratives that only cause additional harm to people in our communities.
USE PERSON-FIRST LANGUAGE.
A person’s disease is only one aspect of who 32 they are as an individual. The same is true of addiction. Using person-first language focuses ourselves and our audiences on the human beings behind our stories.
Person-first language promotes accuracy and humanity in our reporting and is also becoming popular in other areas of journalism coverage. For example, we say “a person who is unhoused” or “a person who was for- merly incarcerated.” In all of these instances, we’re placing our subjects’ humanity above their individual circumstances.
Instead of using words like “addict” or “junkie,” they are “a person with a substance use disorder.”
Note that in interviews, our subjects may use these terms to refer to themselves, especially if they have gone through the Alcoholics or Narcotics Anonymous programs. Language in those meetings commonly requires individuals to identify themselves as an “addict.” But you, as a media professional, are not a member of this community. You should collect everything and allow people to share their stories with you without interceding, but you have an ethical responsibility to make decisions about language to mitigate harm and reduce stigma to an entire community of individuals.
ASK A REAL EXPERT.
At Reporting on Addiction, we know that journalists and media professionals are working against the clock. We have difficult deadlines and often have to rely on quoting the people with whom we have already established relationships, or who will answer the phone in time to meet our deadlines. But as responsible journalists, we must recognize when including those voices can unintentionally harm the very people we are reporting on.
Addiction is a disease and, therefore, there are qualified scientific and medical experts who can speak about it for our stories. They should be seen as required sources in any reporting you do that intersects with addiction or drug use. Community leaders, including politicians, law enforcement and other emergency responders, are often the first place we turn for comment on these types of stories, but they are not trained in the most current medical science.
Think about it this way: If you were sent to cover a tornado that tore through the local elementary school, you would interview the third grade history teacher about the experience on the ground trying to protect the students, but when it comes to the science of the weather event, you would go to a trained meteorologist. These stories are the same. Voices from our communities are important, but they are not experts in this field. Ask the addiction science experts to be part of your reporting, and you’ll immediately be able to expand both your and your audience’s understanding of this disease in a way that will lead them to compassion and empathy.
If you must use a comment from a community leader that is harmful and not based in scientific fact, immediately put their opinion into context. Provide facts from a subject matter expert, peer reviewed study or government source immediately after the comment to prevent further harm.
BE THOUGHTFUL ABOUT IMAGES AND HEADLINES.
As much as we want to believe that every individual who comes across our work is spending time with and reading our entire story, we know that is not always the case. More often than not, they’re reading the headline, looking at the image, and, if we’re lucky, making their way through a handful of paragraphs.
Continue to use that person-first language in your headlines. Yes, we know that makes them longer, but it ensures that you are accurately conveying the story to your audience while reducing stigma in your community. Do not sensationalize the story in the headline just to get clicks. Check our one-page style guide at reportingonaddiction.com for words you can use to replace those sensational ones.
Be thoughtful about your image selection and the unintentional impact it may have on the subject. Placing someone in recovery in an image that has unintentional negative connotations could impact how the community views them. Using images of drug paraphernalia or drug use could promote negative emotions for people who are in recovery and viewing our stories.
INCLUDE TREATMENT RESOURCES AND MESSAGES OF HOPE.
One of our biggest journalism problems around this issue is the lack of coverage of solutions for addiction, including evidence- based treatment referral hotlines and websites. If you are working with a scientific expert, ask them about local evidence-based resources in your community that you may include in your story.
Speaking with an expert who isn’t local? There are national resources that can help people in any community find the treatment they need. At the end of every story include our story tag: Recovery from addiction
is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP), or visit findtreatment.gov.
Addiction is a treatable disease. Recovery is possible. There is hope for our loved ones and our communities. Focus your headlines, images and story narratives on these facts. Give your audience hopeful narratives rather than constant despair.
And whether your story is about the latest overdose death numbers as reported by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, a new prevention education bill being passed by your state legislature, or how the foster care system is dealing with an increased number of children who need homes due to addiction in your community, include the above story tag so anyone reading, listening or watching your news can access the lifesaving treatment they deserve.
is co-director of Reporting on Addiction, a collaborative project of nonprofit media outlet 100 Days in Appalachia and the Opioid Policy Institute. 100 Days in Appalachia is a 2021 national Edward R. Murrow award-winning publication and as its executive editor, she oversees the work of a team of editors, contributors and reporters across Appalachia to create content by Appalachians for Appalachians.
Marra is also a teaching assistant professor in the West Virginia University Reed College of Media, where she teaches news writing, video storytelling and community-focused journalism. She’s spent more than a decade working as a professional journalist for both public media and commercial news outlets, on local, statewide and national platforms, including NPR and ABC News.
is co-director of Reporting on Addiction and director of the Opioid Policy Institute. In 2019, he completed his doctorate in Lifespan Developmental Psychology from West Virginia University and has worked as a researcher focusing on opioid addiction treatment and recovery since 2013. Stoltman's academic work has appeared in leading journals and national conferences. His current work focuses on addiction stigma, the media, and digital approaches to addiction treatment.