National Recovery Month - Media Matters
As part of 2018’s Recovery Month focus on community, it is important to examine the impact of the media on shaping the narrative around substance use and substance use disorders. For over a century, peaking during the crack cocaine epidemic of the 1980s, news coverage framed these individuals, particularly individuals of color, as violent criminals deserving of their drug-related deaths, disproportionate incarceration, and the destruction of their families and communities. This fear-based, punitive approach fueled more and more attempts to arrest our way out of the problem, and by 1995 1 in 3 young black males was involved in the criminal justice system.
Fast forward to 2018, where the face of the opioid epidemic has often been portrayed as a white, suburban, middle-class young person. News coverage now calls for compassion, treatment, and external accountability for the crisis that has cost us so many lives. The humanization of substance use disorder is an important step towards decreasing stigma and ending decades of failed policy, but we must also reckon with the unwritten message that this change is occurring because our society, including the media and the criminal justice system, believes that these young peoples’ lives matter in a way that victims of previous epidemics did not.
While we are fighting for evidence-based interventions and policy reform, we must be intentionally intersectional in our approach. We must take pains to ensure that NO ONE is left behind because of the color of their skin, their socioeconomic status, their access to treatment, or the particular substance(s) they use.
Additionally, we must continue to educate and hold the media accountable for covering this public health crisis as just that. It is time to promote informed, thoughtful coverage and to avoid the sensationalizing of high profile overdoses which serve to further stigmatize this illness. Using person-centered language such as ‘person with substance use disorder’ in place of ‘addict' or ‘alcoholic’ helps to remind us that no one is so one-dimensional as to be summarized by a diagnosis. People with substance use disorder are your friends, family members, neighbors. They come from the same variety of backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives as those who do not have SUD. They deserve the dignity, and the privacy, that anyone else who is living with a chronic illness is afforded, in person and in the press.
We call upon the media to use their significant platform to cover this important issue with respect for those who are struggling with it, and to change the way we all envision solutions.