Avoid stigmatizing narratives, consult credible sources and use language that reflects people’s lived experiences, say experts
A recently updated media kit, published by a group of drug policy advocates and researchers, is designed to reduce stigma around substance use by providing journalists background information and language recommendations on drug policy and the overdose epidemic.
The Canadian Drug Policy Coalition, in partnership with Simon Fraser University’s Centre for Applied Research in Mental Health and Addiction, created the kit for its national dialogue project, Getting to Tomorrow: Ending the Overdose Crisis.
Peter Kim, the coalition’s strategic communications manager and a former reporter, said that with more journalism on issues surrounding substance use and addiction during the ongoing overdose crisis, the group wanted to create an easily accessible “summarized, one-stop shop” on these issues.
“We saw the need to equip journalists with the background, foundational knowledge on these topics so they could more effectively report on these issues with full context and avoid some of the stigmatizing language and narratives that can sometimes surface without this sort of information,” said Kim.
As a former journalist, Kim said he knows that reporters are increasingly put under tighter deadlines because of shrinking resources and newsrooms, so the group thought it would be important “to do anything they could to fill some of those knowledge gaps.”
“I felt that that would only improve the quality of reporting,” said Kim.
Getting to Tomorrow’s goals include increasing understanding of harm reduction as a public health approach to drugs and empowering decision-makers to create and support drug policies that “promote health rather than harm.”
The team hosts workshops and training sessions for government and community leaders and eventually plans to create a summarized final report and online resource hub.
Kim said that the media kit is in line with one of the project’s major goals of reducing stigma by giving journalists “one less thing to worry about when reporting on tight deadlines.”
“We recognize that the mainstream media has an incredible power for change and a very influential impact on society, in terms of how they report, the language they choose, and the narrative that comes out of their reporting of stories,” said Kim.
“They know that the information is there. They know where to get it, and it will help them in their reporting and storytelling.”
Kim said he hopes to have the media kit taught in journalism schools and shared internally in newsrooms as a guide for journalists who are preparing to report on this topic.
“As the crisis evolves, we will be very cognizant of key themes that emerge, and areas where there is a deficiency in knowledge or lack of clarity that we can help sort of fill in,” said Kim.
Currently, language and image choice are what Kim sees as the most common ways journalists poorly represent substance use.
According to Kim, using the word “addict” in news articles can carry a lot of stigma. For people who use drugs, he said, stigma plays a significant role in their willingness to seek help, access services and talk about their substance use openly if their activity is highly stigmatized.
Sensational imagery, such as close-ups of dirty needles on the pavement in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside or police press conferences where they show weapons next to drugs, also contribute to the stigmatization of people who use drugs, said Kim.
Kim also noted a geographical difference in covering substance use. He said that in larger urban centers like Toronto and Vancouver, there are more journalists who understand the context of these issues and the role of language.
Vancouver is the first Canadian city to pass a motion to ask the federal government to decriminalize simple possession of illicit drugs, as of Nov. 25
However, Kim said that he sees more stigmatizing language “creep in” in more rural communities, especially in newsrooms with less experienced journalists just coming out of journalism schools.
“One of the reasons is just experience and access to these issues. When they’re more visible, you’re more likely to understand the nuance and the role that that language can play and how certain types of framing and certain phrases can be more harmful than others,” said Kim.
Guidance from Getting to Tomorrow includes:
– Avoid stigmatizing narratives such as “harm reduction enables drug use” and “addiction is a choice and moral failing.” These narratives often don’t reflect the lived realities of the people involved.
– Use credible subject-matter experts and sources. Members of the scientific and drug policy communities who rely on rigorous studies and evidence are best positioned to comment on matters of substance use. (Giving police, business associations and other individuals lacking expertise in public health wide latitude to comment on this issue in a way that puts their comments on an equal footing to credible sources distorts the debate away from scientific consensus and can help amplify misinformation.)
– Avoid sensational photos — including extreme close-ups of jagged needles, broken glass, and large mounds of white powder, which unnecessarily ratchet up fear.
– Use language that is more reflective of people’s lived realities instead of stigmatizing stereotypes. For example, using “people who use drugs” instead of “junkie,” “addict” or “drug user.”
– Understand the difference between decriminalization and legal regulation. Decriminalization removes criminal penalties for certain activities involving drugs, whereas legalization (or legal regulation) makes certain substances legal but allows the government to control and manage their production and supply instead of an unregulated, illegal market.
Garth Mullins, a long-time freelancer and executive producer of monthly podcast Crackdown, said that the “continuing dominance” of supposedly objective reporting on drug use in mainstream media isn’t free of biases at all.
“So often, the predominantly white, male, straight Canadian media just gets reinforced, but through the backdoor, through this kind of less visible means,” said Mullins. “There’s no such thing as just the fact, if you and the editor choose which facts they’re going to show and which facts they aren’t going to show.”
Crackdown is a longform series on drug policy and the drug war led by drug user activists and supported by academic research. Each episode covers a community or individual “fighting for their life” as well as solutions to the drug war.
Mullins said what Crackdown has done is incorporate tools of conventional journalism like fact-checking and double-sourcing while “throwing out the idea of both sides-ism.”
“I just fly the flag and tell people who I am and what I’m doing here,” said Mullins. “I think you can’t cover harm reduction properly any other way. Just to cover the overdose crisis without taking a position or a side on it, it’s morally weird.”
He said that he’s never liked how conventional journalism uses this “view from nowhere” where journalists are expected to prioritize the notion of objectivity in their reporting.
“You’re supposed to be this just objective reporter with no connection to the world, to erase your individuality and just report as if you’re like in an alien spacecraft watching the Earth or a scientist in a lab,” said Mullins. “I always had a stake in the stuff that I was writing about.”
A November report showed that in 2018, 13 people died of opioid overdoses daily.
According to Mullins, a majority of journalism conducted on the drug war addresses the war as “a force of nature” whereas Mullins said that in reality, the drug war is a “forced policy.”
“Journalism acts like this thing that happened to society is nobody’s fault,” said Mullins. “There are people every day that allow and maintain the policies that cause it, and those people have elected offices and names.”
He said that journalists’ failure to hold politicians accountable and understand the divisions of powers when it comes to public health and health care lets the government off the hook.
“If journalists aren’t there with detailed knowledge to follow this stuff, politicians can just say these vague, shallow things and we just get along,” said Mullins. “It lets governments act like they’re standing beside the crisis and looking at it as a spectator would outside of a burning house, and being like ‘Oh, this fire is terrible’ when in fact, they’re the second arsonist, and they’re still pouring gasoline on the fire right now.”
Mullins believes a good place for journalists to start is to examine their own biases when it comes to drug use and be upfront about their perspectives.
“That’s the advice I’ve been thinking about recently, is find your humanity as a journalist. In so many places where we work, we’re encouraged to delete it, for the purposes of an article. To write in this passive voice, view from nowhere,” said Mullins. “You can’t be neutral about something that’s killing thousands of people.”