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News Media Continues Drug War Rhetoric Amid Opioid Crisis

By Zachary Siegel 12/07/15

An analysis of American media demonstrates the need for a serious attitude adjustment.

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recent study published in the journal Psychiatric Services painted a bleak picture of opioid abuse as it’s portrayed in the American press.

Entitled “Criminal Activity or Treatable Health Condition? News Media Framing of Opioid Analgesic Abuse in the United States,” the paper thoroughly analyzed 673 news stories on opioids from the years 1998-2012.

“This type of analysis can help us understand the types of information the American public are exposed to through the news media, and assess how reporters and opinion leaders are framing the causes of and solutions to the problem," Dr. Emma E. McGinty, lead investigator on the study, told Medscape.

One of the main findings was that the media frequently frames the current opioid problem as a criminal justice issue, though experts argue it is within the domain of public health.

The analysis found that nearly 295 articles named the cause of the opioid crisis as simply a matter of people dealing drugs. Of the 77% of articles that mentioned any cause at all, 32% listed patients seeking opioids.

Only half of the articles mentioned a solution to the opioid crisis. And the most common solution? More law enforcement. This glut of listless reporting serves to uphold drug war structures that America, to no avail, has relied on for decades.

"These findings suggest that the national dialogue around opioid analgesic abuse still frames this issue predominantly as a criminal justice issue rather than as a public health problem or treatable health condition,” said Dr. McGinty.

Sadly, less than 5% of media coverage mentioned expanding treatment services. Fewer than that mentioned evidenced-based care, such as medication-assisted treatments (MAT) like buprenorphine.

Despite 2012 being the study's cut-off year, several clinical trials using buprenorphine to treat opioid addiction took place prior. Medications such as methadone and buprenorphine—both of which have seen success in treating opioid dependence—were included in the World Health Organization's list of essential medicines in 2005.

Furthermore, a 2011 meta-analysis consisting of 38 studies involving some 12,400 participants demonstrated that MAT is associated with reductions in illicit opioid use, as well as reductions in risky injecting behavior that leads to HIV, hepatitis C, and other blood-borne diseases.

Why these studies do not translate into mass media hype is obvious: they’re uninteresting. Given the results of the analysis at hand, stories of big drug busts and heroin creeping out of the "ghettos" across class lines are the dominant ways in which the media reports on drugs. This method serves to reinforce drug war rhetoric while informing no one that opioid addiction is a treatable public health problem.

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Zachary Siegel is a freelance journalist specializing in science, health and drug policy. His reporting has also appeared in Slate, The Daily Beast, Salon, Huffington Post, among others. He writes often about addiction, sometimes drawing from his own experience. You can find out more about Zachary on Linkedin or follow him on Twitter.

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