Better Media Reporting on Opioids: Data, Racial Justice, and Harm Reduction – Health & Medicine Policy Research Group

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Better Media Reporting on Opioids: Data, Racial Justice, and Harm Reduction

Jun 20, 2019

Opioid and other substance use disorders are heavily stigmatized. Media plays an important role in shaping perceptions of public health concerns and impacting the public policy responses. This press briefing and discussion examined the relationship between media coverage and public policy, introducing a toolkit to guide reporters in integrating public health solutions into coverage of the opioid epidemic.

Led by Veronica Alexander, Yuliana López, and Wesley Epplin, we explored the role the media has played in stigmatizing drug use and how today’s coverage continues to perpetuate inequity with racialized narratives. We emphasized the importance of harm reduction techniques in de-stigmatizing drug use and in shaping narratives to support policies that focus on treatment and health equity.

We discussed:

  • The most current data on the national opioid epidemic and the paradoxical trends that differentiate Chicago
  • Recommendations for cutting edge harm reduction practices and innovative public policy solutions
  • The correlation between stigmatization and criminalization, and how to report from an anti-racist lens
  • Alternatives to stigmatizing language, framing, and conventional narratives, and the difference best practice journalism can play in policy decisions

There were presentations from Chicagoland harm reduction experts, people with lived experience, journalists with expertise, and health policy experts about how we can work together to improve how we cover opioids.

Here are the slides from the event’s presentations:

Gabriela Zapata-Alma, Director of Policy and Practice for Domestic Violence and Substance Use at the National Center on Domestic Violence, said that “Words are powerful. Stigma kills.” She emphasized that there are tangible consequences of the way we speak about substance use in the form of criminalization and incarceration of people of color.

Zachary Siegel, health journalist and member of Health in Justice Action Lab’s “Changing the Narrative” network, spoke about how stigmatizing language in news media coverage of the opioid epidemic reinforces existing disparities and has material harm for people. De-stigmatizing language is a public health priority.

Suzanne Carlberg-Racich, Assistant Professor of Public Health at DePaul University, Director of Research at Chicago Recovery Alliance, and Board member of Health & Medicine, said that effective approaches include harm reduction, overdose prevention sites, comprehensive reality-based education, and decriminalization.

Veronica Alexander, Policy Analyst at Health & Medicine, talked about the opioid media toolkit for journalists, which includes the history of media coverage influencing public policy, accurate depiction of opioid epidemic, harm reduction innovations, and de-stigmatizing narrative framing.