Thursday, December 10, 2009
Addicted to Bad Reporting
How should we cover drug dependence?
Journalists usually learn it early: Drug stories are crime stories. Articles about alcoholism and assorted “hard” drug addictions are typically sourced by law enforcement, and the frequently lurid results tend to dump recreational, illegal, and prescription drugs into the same stew.
This is a particular problem for patients on opioid substitution therapy, who take maintenance drugs such as methadone and buprenorphine (Suboxone). Both drugs are the subject of black markets the size of which is difficult to pin down, but the vast majority of users take the drugs under medical supervision in government-supervised health and social programs.
According to the World Health Organization (WHO), it is in everybody’s interest to get this straight. The U.N. agency reports that every dollar spent on drug treatment results in a savings of $7 in health and social costs. Treatment of opioid addiction with methadone or buprenorphine is now possible in 63 countries. “Substitution maintenance therapy is one of the most effective treatment options for opioid dependence,” says WHO. Such therapies reduce “heroin use, associated deaths, HIV risk behaviors and criminal activity.”
Nonetheless, the tendency among news writers to use phrases like “fake heroin,” “drug-using criminals,” and “giving drugs to drug users” led the International Harm Reduction Association (IHRA), with sponsorship from Schering-Plough, makers of the addiction treatment drug Suboxone, to suggest media reporting guidelines in a white paper issued earlier this year. In “Addicted to News: A Guide to Responsible Reporting on Opioid Dependence and its Treatment,” the authors reviewed 53 English-language articles about substitution therapy and discovered a continuing trend toward “sensationalist ‘tabloid’ stories’” leading to a “backlash against people with the condition, or an increase or exacerbation of the problem if it is glorified or publicized by a celebrity.”
Specifically, the IHRA identifies the following problems:
--Exaggerated terminology (“magic bullet,” “junkies,” “pharmaceutical narcotics”).
--Depiction of patients as criminals rather than people with a serious condition often requiring medical treatment.
--Undue emphasis on criminal activity related to substitution therapies.
--Assumption that the treatment has failed unless the patient is drug free.
--Portrayal of medical anti-craving drugs as indistinguishable from recreational drugs.
So what can a serious journalist do about it? IHRA is glad to provide some suggestions:
--Ask yourself, “what if this was me or someone close to me?’
--Use factual and correct terminology.
--Include balanced, up-to-date local statistics on treatment programs.
--Depend entirely on law enforcement as story sources.
--Use exaggerated or derogatory descriptions of patients in treatment.
--Try to localize a national or international story without close attention to its relevance to the local community.
--Allow celebrity news to warp the reporting of treatments available for this serious condition.
As the IHRA tirelessly points out, when patients are effectively treated, everybody benefits.
Graphics Credit: http://asp.cumc.columbia.edu