Published On: Sat, Jan 7th, 2023

How the Media Should Cover Drug Addiction

Recovery can seem impossible for many Americans who struggle with addiction. The constant barrage of grim headlines contributes to this despair.

As a former drug addict who now helps others recover, I know getting clean is possible. Social and community support, however, is key. Toward that end, I would like to challenge the media to re-evaluate how they cover substance abuse. Current journalistic practice tends to focus on negative stories that distort the realities of the opioid epidemic and answer the wrong questions. This can leave readers feeling helpless and thwart society’s potential to address the problem.

photo/ pixabay user lechenie-narkomanii

First of all, most media coverage on substance abuse tends to distort the realities of this complex social issue. For instance, articles often focus on deadly “new” drugs, yet these drugs usually aren’t new at all. Fentanyl, for instance, has been killing addicts for years. Before that, it was heroin. What is new is that the number of deaths has increased to the point that the media has noticed. 

Moreover, many articles written on addiction ask the wrong questions. They concern themselves with what the drug is and trot out terrifying names like Isotonitazene, Acetyl Fentanyl, and Carfentanil. The cold hard truth, however, is that street-level addicts don’t care what the stuff is called. They just want to know if it’s going to work.

Reporters also worry about where the drugs come from. Articles often scapegoat foreign countries, bringing up Mexican cartels or Canadian meth labs, all but ignoring illegal drug operations here in the US. Questions about the sources of illicit drugs make sense for law enforcement agencies to ask, but the answers to them are irrelevant to most Americans. We’re all aware drugs are coming into our neighborhoods. What most people actually need to understand is how to help their friends and family members who are turning to these substances.

This frightening storytelling can also leave readers feeling helpless. Yes, people need to know that fentanyl is deadly, but when articles only focus on the negative, they can misdirect people into perceiving themselves as powerless. Stories about waves of ever-more-lethal drugs don’t inform readers what they can do as individuals to stop this scourge and protect their loved ones.

This narrative also prevents a reckoning with the real reasons Americans become addicts. As a treatment facility co-founder, I often meet parents who would prefer to blame outsiders for their children’s addictions. But no matter how scary foreign suppliers and drug dealers might be, they aren’t forcing your loved ones to use. No matter how potent the drugs are, they can’t jump down people’s throats.

Instead, the roots of substance abuse lie in trauma and pain. People develop dependencies on dangerous drugs to avoid feeling soul-deep wounds. Addiction often starts — and ends — in the family. Parents need to pay attention where it matters, listening to their kids and being present with them. Only once Americans understand why people become addicts can they better understand what they can do about it themselves.

In this way, the media’s coverage constitutes one reason our society has failed to mobilize an effective defense against the addiction epidemic. We know the media can make adjustments, however, because it has done so in the past. Consider what happened when reporters and editors realized that naming mass shooters made them famous, thereby fulfilling one of their most commonly-shared desires. In response, many outlets stopped naming shooters, denying them this notoriety.

A similar thing needs to happen with coverage of substance abuse. Alternative ways to cover substance abuse would start conversations about possible solutions and spotlight proven ones. Reporters should provide answers to the real questions: “Why are Americans trying to use these substances to escape their lives? What are the solutions? How can we address these problems together?”.

Solution-based coverage also would tell the stories of recovered addicts as beacons of hope. A lot of people do escape addiction, and focusing on recovery would give others confidence that they can, too.

Renowned Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh wrote, “If your house is on fire, the most urgent thing to do is to go back and try to put out the fire, not to run after the person you believe to be the arsonist. If you run after [that] person…, your house will burn down while you are chasing him or her. That is not wise. You must go back and put out the fire.”

America, your house is on fire. Instead of running after foreign drug cartels, it’s time to reflect on ourselves and our society so that we can heal the wounds that cause addiction.

By Nicholas Mathews, Founder — Stillwater Behavioral Health 

— Nicholas Mathews is a founder of Stillwater Behavioral Health, a Dual Diagnosis treatment facility in Los Angeles, CA that helps those struggling to recover from substance addiction and mental health disorders. Mathews started using heroin at a young age. After getting clean, he dedicated his life to guiding others into sobriety.

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