Canadian newspaper coverage on harm reduction featuring bereaved mothers: A mixed methods analysis

PLoS One. 2023 Nov 27;18(11):e0294608. doi: 10.1371/journal.pone.0294608. eCollection 2023.


A growing body of evidence suggests that news media which includes a sympathetic portrayal of a mother bereaved by substance use can increase public support for harm reduction initiatives. However, the extent to which such news media coverage occurs in Canada is unknown, and research has not documented how the news media in Canada covers such stories. We undertook a mixed-method secondary analyses of 5681 Canadian newspaper articles on harm reduction (2000-2016). Quantitative analyses described the volume and content of harm reduction reporting featuring a mother whose child's death was related to substance use while qualitative thematic analysis provided in-depth descriptions of the discourses underlying such news reporting. Newspaper articles featuring a mother whose child's death was related to substance use were rarely published (n = 63; 1.1% of total harm reduction media coverage during the study period). Deductive content analysis of these 63 texts revealed that coverage of naloxone distribution (42.9%) and supervised drug consumption services (28.6%) were prioritized over other harm reduction services. Although harm reduction (services or policies) were advocated by the mother in most (77.8%) of these 63 texts, inductive thematic analysis of a subset (n = 52) of those articles revealed that mothers' advocacy was diminished by newspaper reporting that emphasized their experiences of grief, prioritized individual biographies over structural factors contributing to substance use harms, and created rhetorical divisions between different groups of people who use drugs (PWUD). Bereaved mothers' advocacy in support of harm reduction programs and services may be minimized in the process of reporting their stories for newspaper readers. Finding ways to report bereaved mothers' stories in ways that are inclusive of all PWUD while highlighting the role of broad, structural determinants of substance use has the potential to shift public opinion and government support in favour of these life-saving services.

MeSH terms

  • Canada
  • Child
  • Female
  • Harm Reduction*
  • Humans
  • Mass Media
  • Mothers
  • Substance-Related Disorders*

Grants and funding

Funding: This work was supported by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research under grant CIHR; MOP137073; toTCW and EH; an infrastructure grant from CIHR to the Canadian ResearchInitiative in Substance Misuse (CRISM), Prairie Node under grant # CRISMN139151( toTCW and EH; Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council (SSHRC) DoctoralAward under grant # 752-2019-2510 to HM(; Izaak Walton KillamMemorial Scholarship to HM (; the StolleryChildren’s Hospital Foundation and the Alberta Women’s Health Foundation undergrant #2221 to HM (; the Canada Research Chairsprogram through a Tier 2 Canada Research Chair in Health Systems Innovationunder grant # CRC TIER2 233345 which supports EH ( The funders had norole in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish, orpreparation of the manuscript.