Never seen an ugly ex-addict. Never seen a black woman in an opioid ad. Never seen a white jazz player with a heroin problem. Never heard a junkie speak who couldn’t string it out and get you hooked on his or her hopeless story. And I’ve been looking for years on end.
There is a reason for this: reporters, editors, directors, producers pick the images we see to make their editorial point, to get you to read their article. There is no return on ugly.
Here are seven things reporters can do to help prevent drug abuse and help us all understand what is going on. Only reporters can fix these
- Put all drug abuse (use of illegal drugs) in context of America’s century of drug addiction. The opioid crisis is just the latest cycle of addiction. Here is the only article I have seen in the past few years that has a proper context: an editorial at the New York Times.
- The sooner the better, reference that alcohol and tobacco are drugs that are age-restricted but legal. They are among the leading causes of death. No overdose deaths from marijuana have been reported.
- Avoid leading off with a sensational anecdote that is not representative of the using population. Reporters are trained to do this in order to get the readers’ attention, but the exceptional profile or experience distorts the data and trendlines.
- Avoid white images for opioid use and black images for heroin use or scraggly-haired teens for pot use. Opioid addiction was called to the attention of the nation by white politicians campaigning for president in predominately white states, especially Chris Christie in New Hampshire when his poll numbers started to tank.
- Avoid the use of healthy ex-addicts talking about their misery: the medium is the message. Kids with low self-esteem want to be like that person: healthy, wealthy and wise. The glamour of recovery.
- Avoid misleading data charts. Display trend data in full context of the entire population rather than a data field that has a 30 percent use rate filling the entire data box and using a short time span to make a more dramatic point. When 30 percent is displayed as the height of the problem, where is the 70 percent not using the drug or not addicted to the drug? When the chart only shows the past year, at what level was the problem 5 years ago, 10 years ago.
Here is how it is too often reported:
Here is how it should be reported, but rarely is:
- Remember there is big money in drug abuse prevention. Billions over the years, most of it wasted to support the status quo according to the first United Nations Global Commission on Drugs that included former Fed Reserve Chairman Paul Volker, Sir Richard Branson best known with his development of Virgin Airlines, former head of the UN Kofi Annan and former US Secretary of State George Schultz . If you are a cop you will say enforcement is the answer, if you are a doc you will say that treatment is the answer, if you are a parent you will say education in schools is the answer and so on. Each solution has its own constituency. Its own money pot.