By Barbara Goodheart, ELS
On December 1, Psychiatric Services in Advance, an online service of the American Psychiatric Association, published “Criminal Activity or Treatable Health Condition? News Media Framing of Opioid Analgesic Abuse in the United States, 1998-2012.” The study is summarized below.
National and regional news stories reviewed: 673
Quantitative methodology assessed:
– Causes of misuse
Of news stories that named any cause of opioid analgesic misuse (77%),
– Proposed solutions
Law-enforcement actions: 64%; specifically, arrest and prosecute diverters: 37%
Rarely mentioned: expand substance abuse treatment: 3%
The findings underscore the need to reframe opioid analgesic misuse as a treatable medical condition, using well-established public and behavioral health approaches.
Stigma. The authors hit hard on the issue of stigma. They noted that news reports often zero in on individuals who have a condition such as opioid addiction—creating a picture that can influence how their audience views everyone who has the same condition. This is especially important in opioid misuse, where levels of stigma are already high and “could be further exacerbated by negative depictions.”
The study suggested that portraying people as being successfully treated for their opioid misuse could improve the public’s views of these individuals—but instead they’re usually depicted as involved in criminal activity. The authors said, “Demonizing users of drugs . . . has a long history in the United States and is associated with social stigma and punitive policies” directed at the groups.
In closing, the authors commented that for decades, news coverage framed opioid analgesic abuse primarily as a criminal justice issue. Yet evidence-based treatments exist, and portraying people who have recovered can help lower public stigma and reduce discrimination practices.
Overdose Deaths Follow Media Reports of Opioid-Induced Euphoria
Alternatively, portraying people in a state of euphoria from opioid misuse can increase stigma—especially when death by overdose is the outcome. A study that preceded the APA study found a statistically significant association between prescription opioid misuse and unintentional death—from the same misused medications—two to six months later. The seven-year investigation, published in PLoS ONE, included more than 24,000 articles and almost 31,000 death reports.
The PLoS ONE study quoted the opening lines of articles that had inadvertently endorsed opioid misuse, but that hadn’t mentioned the possible dangers involved until a later page. Here’s an example of an opener; the opioid is oxycodone:
“Euphoria envelopes your body in a warm, cozy hug. Problems dissolve. Limbs tingle. Life feels perfect . . .”
Sounds like a siren call luring us toward disaster.
Similar descriptions—“floating in air,” “riding next to God”—came from stories about teenagers hooked on model-airplane glue or goofballs. The authors said that the similarity of language indicated a type of reporting that hasn’t changed in at least four decades.
The authors of the PLoS ONE study acknowledged the influential role of news media in highlighting important issues. They also conceded that multifactorial influences may lead the public to expect stories of drug misuse that contain details such as those mentioned above.
But it’s not surprising that the study results also suggested to the authors “the need for a thorough evaluation of this topic, with an eye towards ethical standards that promote responsible journalism.”
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McGinty EE, Kennedy-Hendricks A, Baller J, Niederdeppe J, Gollust S, Barry L. Criminal activity or treatable health condition? News media framing of opioid analgesic abuse in the United States, 1998-2012 [Epub ahead of print December 1, 2015]. Psychiatr Serv. PMID: 26620290. doi: 10.1176/appi.ps.201500065.
Dasgupta N, Mandl KD, Brownstein JS. Breaking the news or fueling the epidemic? Temporal association between news media report volume and opioid-related mortality. PLoS ONE. 2009;e7758. doi:10.1371/journal.pone.0007758.