The news media frames the prescription opioid abuse crisis largely as a criminal issue rather than as a public health problem or treatable health condition, new research suggests.
And that’s a problem, lead investigator Emma E. McGinty, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland said.
“The way that the news media covers issues such as opioid analgesic abuse can influence public opinion about the problem and support for policy proposals to address the issue,” she said.
The findings “underscore the need for a concerted effort to reframe opioid analgesic abuse as a treatable condition addressable via well-established public and behavioral health approaches,” Dr McGinty and her colleagues write.
The study was published December 1 in Psychiatric Services.
Criminal or Clinical Issue?
“Opioid analgesic abuse, addiction, and overdose are among the most pressing public health problems facing the nation today. We conducted a news media content analysis to improve our understanding of the national dialogue on this issue. This type of analysis can help us understand the types of information the American public are exposed to through the news media and assess how reporters and opinion leaders are framing the causes of and solutions to the problem,” said Dr McGinty.
The researchers assessed the volume and content of print and television news coverage of opioid analgesic abuse over a recent 15-year period (1998 to 2012). They found that 77% of the news stories mentioned a cause of the crisis, most commonly, illicit drug dealing by physicians, patients, and others (57%), followed by physician-related cause (47%), patient-related cause (32%), and pharmacy-related cause (34%).
A little more than half (51%) of the stories mentioned solutions to the crisis, most commonly, law enforcement (64%), followed by any prevention-oriented solutions (41%) and expanding substance use treatment (3%).
More than 80% of the news stories depicted an individual abuser of opioids. Of those, two thirds depicted individuals actively involved in criminal activity. Abusers were more likely to be depicted as engaging in criminal activity than seeking or getting treatment.
These findings, Dr McGinty said, “suggest that the national dialogue around opioid analgesic abuse still frames this issue predominantly as a criminal justice issue rather than as a public health problem or treatable health condition, though we do see some promising shifts in news coverage of the issue over time ― for example, a shift away from law enforcement–focused solutions and toward prevention-oriented solutions. That said, very few news stories describe opioid addiction as a treatable health condition or portray people with such addiction undergoing successful treatment.
“Research suggests that in the absence of these depictions in mainstream news coverage, it may be difficult to garner public and policy makers’ support for expanding evidence-based substance use disorder treatment in the US,” she added.
Reached for comment, Jeffrey Levi, PhD, executive director of Trust for America’s Health, said that it is important to note that the period covered by this study ends in 2012, and during the last 3 years, “there’s been a dramatic increase in the number of stories in major newspapers about this issue and a huge uptake in interest in this issue, and I think more of a reframing of the issue towards a public health problem than perhaps this study would suggest.
“Certainly, the challenges we face around prescription opioids, heroin, or any type of substance misuse is fundamentally a public policy and health issue, and I think in the last couple of years, we have seen that trend both in terms of how the press is reporting it and also in terms of how policy makers are looking at it. For example, take naloxone as a harm reduction approach. Before 2012, very few of us knew much about it. Now it’s getting tremendous attention,” Dr Levi said.