As NCADA’s Public Awareness Specialist, I’m tasked with both reaching out and responding to news reporters. We are always eager to work with various TV, radio or print media sources to educate the public on how to reduce or prevent harms associated with substance use, or showcase our organization’s successes in the community.
But, well-intended reporting can go awry. Too often we see stories relating to substance use disorder that include language and imagery perpetuating prejudices against those with a mental health condition. Images of candles, spoons, and needles, videos of people behaving badly, or videos that feature the children of overdose victims, are particularly harmful.
Substance use can be a complex, if not controversial, topic, and media professionals cannot be expected to be content experts in all things. We here at NCADA are trained to know and understand the subtleties and sensitivities that come with translating health information to the general public. The responsibility rests on us to enable and equip media to get the message right.
Therefore, NCADA has developed recommended guidelines for reporting on overdoses. Substance use disorder should, to the greatest extent possible, be portrayed as a public health issue and not an individual failing. Informed reporting can reduce harm and possibly do good by reinforcing messages that treatment works, recovery is possible, and most importantly, there is hope.
As suggested in its title, the intended audience for this document is media professionals. But I’ll bet there’s a good chance these recommendations offer helpful guidance to everyone in navigating difficult conversations about substance use.
Brandon Costerison is the Public Awareness Specialist for NCADA.