San Francisco CBS Airs Story About "Junkies"

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San Francisco CBS Airs Story About "Junkies"

By Jillian Bauer-Reese 05/03/18

My students and I spend most of our time discussing the importance of language and framing in an attempt to rebuild trust between the media and members of the addiction, recovery, and all other related communities.

screenshot of TV screen with text reading "BART JUNKIES"

Until last week, I could count on one hand the number of times I’ve been genuinely speechless, but thanks to a story that aired on San Francisco’s CBS affiliate last Wednesday, I needed hand number-two.

In a segment on KPIX 5’s 5:00 news, the station broadcast a story in which the anchor, video editor, and web editor all used the word “junkies” to describe people who use drugs in the corridors of San Francisco’s Civic Center BART Station. You read that right, “junkies," kind of like the way some people used "retard" to describe people with intellectual differences, but in this case, they were describing people who use drugs. 

In the midst of America’s deadliest-ever addiction crisis, every bit of media coverage affects the public’s perception of addiction, and those perceptions shape policies surrounding treatment, housing, employment, and drugs. Using the term “junkie” fails to meet even the most basic ethical standards expected of every journalist. This news station owes the public an apology and needs immediate training on empathy, and everyone who touched this story should be fired. 

I teach a course at Temple University called Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction. My students and I spend most of our time discussing the importance of language and framing in an attempt to rebuild trust between the media and members of the addiction, recovery, and all other related communities. Most often, the word “addict” and stories about “addicted babies” take center stage, as not using person-first language is proven by research to negatively impact how we perceive people who use drugs, and babies are proven by science to not ever, under any circumstance, meet the criteria for addiction. 

At the beginning of this semester, one of my students raised his hand during an addiction language training and said (doubtfully), “Junkie? Do people really still use the word junkie?” He felt the term is so widely accepted as stigmatizing that nobody mainstream would still use it. But since then, one of our guest speakers casually dropped the word to describe people who overdose, and KPIX 5 aired this story. So I suppose that answered his question, and we all now know it's not just a word thrown around on comment forums amongst the trolls. 

I've written about language before, and now is typically the point at which I'd recommend that members of the media take a look at the Recovery Research Institute’s Addiction-ary, which is an online tool that provides definitions for addiction-related terms and flags stigmatizing ones. But, as one of many members on the Addiction-ary's committee, I'll save you the time and tell you this: There is not one word listed under "J," because frankly, the word "junkie" is so obviously appalling that we didn't think to include it on the list. 

I guess it's time for us to give the list another look. 

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Jillian Bauer-Reese is an assistant professor of journalism in the Klein College of Media and Communication at Temple University, where she teaches courses in multimedia storytelling, information design, data journalism, and solutions-driven reporting. She also serves as the faculty advisor for the Temple Collegiate Recovery Program. You can find her on Linkedin and Twitter.

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