Stigmatizing language in news media coverage of the opioid epidemic: Implications for public health

Prev Med. 2019 Jul;124:110-114. doi: 10.1016/j.ypmed.2019.03.018.


Public stigma toward people who use illicit drugs impedes advancement of public health solutions to the opioid epidemic and reduces willingness to seek addiction treatment. Experimental studies show that use of certain terms, such as "addict" and "substance abuser," exacerbate stigma while alternative terms, such as "person with a substance use disorder," are less stigmatizing. We examine the frequency with which stigmatizing terms and less-stigmatizing alternatives are used in U.S. news media coverage of the opioid epidemic. We analyzed 6399 news stories about the opioid epidemic published/aired by high-circulation and high-viewership U.S. national and regional print and television news outlets from July 2008 through June 2018. We calculated the proportion of news stories mentioning terms shown to be stigmatizing, as well as terms shown to be less-stigmatizing alternatives, in randomized experiments. Data was collected during May through August 2018 and analyzed in September 2018. Over the 10-year study period, 49% of news stories about the opioid epidemic mentioned any stigmatizing term and 2% mentioned any less-stigmatizing alternative. The proportion of news stories mentioning stigmatizing terms over the 10-year study period increased from 37% in July 2008-June 2009 to 45% in July 2017-June 2018. The language included in U.S. news media coverage of the opioid epidemic may contribute to and reinforce widespread public stigma toward people with opioid use disorders. This stigma may be a barrier to implementation of evidence-based interventions to prevent opioid overdose deaths. Establishing journalistic standards to de-stigmatize the language of addiction is a public health priority.

Keywords: Opioid; Policy; Stigma.

MeSH terms

  • Humans
  • Language*
  • Mass Media*
  • Opioid Epidemic / trends*
  • Public Health*
  • Stereotyping*
  • United States / epidemiology