News Coverage of Opioid Abuse Focuses on Criminal Justice More Than Health: Study

An analysis of news coverage of opioid abuse finds the media is more likely to focus on criminal justice than on health issues. The study found 64 percent of news stories about opioids mentioned law enforcement, compared with 41 percent that mentioned prevention, and 3 percent that referred to expanding treatment.

“That surprised me, frankly,” said lead researcher Emma McGinty of the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health. “I really expected to see more of a shift to a public health and behavioral health approach to the issue.”

Stories that mentioned law enforcement included references to people who were arrested for illegally buying and selling opioid painkillers, or doctors who were arrested for illegally providing the drugs, NPR reports.

McGinty and colleagues looked at 673 news stories in major-market television and print outlets from 1998 to 2012. Fewer than half of the stories – 44 percent – mentioned that opioids are effective for treating pain, and less than 1 percent included a reference to harm reduction efforts, such as protecting people from criminal charges if they seek medical help for a person who has overdosed.

She noted that toward the end of the study period, news coverage about prevention and treatment started to increase. “This was the one glimmer of light from a public health perspective,” McGinty noted.

The study appears in the journal Psychiatric Services.

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