On May 31st, the AP announced over 200 changes to their Stylebook – including some guidance on how to write about addiction. Words like ‘addict’ and ‘abuser’ were to be avoided and replaced with more person-first and less pejorative language. Many have lauded this move as a step in the right direction- to help increase compassion and understanding for people who struggle with their substance use.
However, it is apparent that not all publications are following suit and that a change in the language is not enough to shift our deeply-ingrained cultural stigma against people who use substances. We as a society still have clear ideas of who substance users are, what they are like, and whether they are worthy of dignity and respect, even though these are often inaccurate and misinformed. We don’t have to look far to find clear examples in our media that perpetuate these deep stigmas. Here are just two published within 24 hours of one another:
Last Friday Mother Jones published a piece by Kevin Drum, which was likely intended to poke fun at the not-so-surprising (in his opinion) results of a recently published study on public attitudes towards policies impacting the homeless.
The study found that, despite supporting programs to help the homeless, many respondents also backed prohibitive policies which disproportionately impact the homeless such as bans on sleeping outdoors or panhandling. The researchers believe that these opposing feelings can be explained by the feeling of disgust – that the public may have compassion, but they also have a desire to maintain a distance from this population.
In Drum’s attempt to minimize the significance of the study’s findings, he wrote: “No kidding. About half the homeless suffer from a mental illness and a third abuse either alcohol or drugs. You’d be crazy not to have a reflexive disgust of a population like that. Is that really so hard to get?” Drum’s point being- of course people with mental illness and/or problems with substances are viewed as disgusting. Not a big deal.
The New York Times is another publication not yet ready to promote changes in word usage around addiction. Just this weekend they published a piece in their Business section entitled, “The Lawyer, The Addict” in which a woman described how she spent the past several years trying to understand and put together the story of her ex-husband’s addiction after his tragic death. She wrote, “Peter, one of the most successful people I have ever known, died a drug addict, felled by a systemic bacterial infection common to intravenous users.”
The piece shifted between two main areas: one, her disbelief that someone like her ex-husband would use drugs or become addicted, and two, that problematic substance use is woefully unaddressed amongst legal professionals. While her second area of focus was an important one, my concerns lie with the assumptions embedded in her first.
Although it was apparent that she deeply cared about her ex-husband and saw him as a caring father, she struggled to see how he could also have developed an addiction. He didn’t fit the traditional narrative of a drug user she (and others) had been led to believe- he was a professional, a family man, and smart. Because of this, they never saw that he was a sensitive person working in a stressful environment who was burning out on the job and trying to find a way to cope with so many competing demands.
All of this is to say that media still has an important role to play in larger societal discourse and the choices they make can have real consequences- whether it’s a choice in language, phrasing, or even in deciding which stories to run and how to frame them. The two stories I highlighted above both reflect the same problem we have had in how we represent people who use substances- we have been taught to view them as outsiders and people from whom to maintain a distance, rather than people worthy of compassion and dignity. People like us.
Sheila P. Vakharia is the Policy Manager of the Office of Academic Engagement for the Drug Policy Alliance.