Home > Covering substance use and addiction responsibly.

Crowell, Rachel (2023) Covering substance use and addiction responsibly. The Open Notebook, (16 May 2023),

External website: https://www.theopennotebook.com/2023/05/16/coverin...

Stories about substance use and addiction can be among the thorniest that health and science reporters encounter. This topic carries a long history of marginalizing the people most directly affected. In addition, deeply ingrained societal misconceptions about substance use make it difficult to separate fact from fiction. And a tangle of political and legal issues adds another layer of complexity to navigate. For all these reasons and more, it’s easy for reporters covering such stories to make avoidable missteps. By leaning too heavily on tragic or grisly narratives or buying into simplistic and damaging myths, stories can perpetuate the stigma surrounding substance use and downplay the real possibility of treatment and recovery.

Journalists can help reverse this pattern. Good reporting on substance use and addiction is both accurate and sensitive, includes sources with lived experience without compounding their trauma, points out scientific limitations, explores how intersecting issues such as mental health and poverty are at play, and, when possible, frames stories around solutions and hope. Here are some tips to keep in mind as you work to sharpen your coverage in this area. 

  1. Use precise, humanizing language.
  2. Include sources who use substances.
  3. Use trauma-informed reporting skills.
  4. Consider offering anonymity.
  5. Select images carefully.
  6. Watch out for myths.
  7. Highlight scientific limitations.
  8. Put your story in context.
  9. Adopt a solutions angle.

[Note: This story is part of the Diverse Voices series, which aims to examine the experiences, expertise, and perspectives of science journalists from communities that are underrepresented in science journalism. The series is a partnership between The Open Notebook and the National Association of Science Writers’ Diversity Committee, and is supported by Science Sandbox, an initiative of the Simons Foundation. Read other stories in the Diverse Voices series here]

Repository Staff Only: item control page