How the media can play its part in reducing the stigma surrounding substance use

Professor Tessa Parkes and Dr Hannah Carver, Faculty of Social Sciences, University of Stirling

Female reporter taking notes and holding microphones at press conference

Not many of us like to be told what to do in our professional or personal lives, particularly those working in the media.

By their nature, our media correspondents tend to be determined, single-minded, opinionated individuals. These qualities tend to go hand in hand with effective journalism.

So when a new campaign launched this year sharing the stories of those left behind after losing a loved one to alcohol and drug use, the groups behind the drive faced a dilemma. The campaign needed media coverage, which meant it needed the journalists. But the subject required sensitive treatment.

See Beyond – See the Lives – Scotland takes the shape of letters written to those who have died – by their children, parents, siblings and friends. The letters are accompanied by a video of the writer silently listening to their voice reading out their words. Deliberately stark and simple, the website offers a window into the devastating effect of a loved one’s death on those they knew.

Our contributors are beyond brave, sharing with brutal honesty many of the emotions that come with bereavement, and battling the stigma that surrounds alcohol and drug use. They speak of the pain, loneliness, frustration and anger they feel over not only the loss of life, but the reactions others have to the way that life was lost.

It wasn’t surprising that media outlets were keen to share this very powerful content. However, it was a tricky path to navigate. The University of Stirling, Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs, Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems, and The Salvation Army – the partners behind See Beyond – believe that the media plays its part in perpetuating alcohol and drug-related stigma.

The language that is used – words like ‘addict’ and ‘substance misuse’ – come with their own judgement. The go-to photography and footage, often a used syringe or empty bottle, bleak living conditions, and someone down on their luck, sends messages too. It may have shock and click-bait value, but these circumstances couldn’t be further from the truth. As our stories demonstrate, substance use is one of life’s levellers. It cuts across the demographic divide. Many people hide their substance use, and well – behind jobs, social lives, friendships, and families.

That’s why we dedicate a section of the See Beyond website to tips for the media. And it’s why every journalist we engage with is sent a link to those tips.

How does that play out? So far, extremely well. We can count just one reporter who pushed back, asking “Are you telling me to not use the word ‘addiction’?”. The answer then was no, we weren’t telling, merely suggesting they consider alternatives. And while we didn’t expect cooperation from all of the media outlets (29 and counting) that have covered our campaign, we are heartened by some of the reactions.

A well-known name in Scottish print journalism not only welcomed the tips but prided themselves on the fact that the word ‘addiction’ didn’t appear once in their report. A TV producer thanked us, agreeing with the principle of improved reporting and saying they would pass the advice on to their team. To balance that out, another TV contact also thanked us, but went on to ignore the guidelines.

We’re not naïve enough to think we, or the See Beyond campaign, can transform the reporting of alcohol and drug use. But when you have something the media wants – in this case a bank of strong stories and people willing to be identified and go on the record about something that makes instant headlines – it puts you in a better position to make people pay attention.

See Beyond is about changing the way people think about those who use substances. That change is gradual, but if our experience is anything to go by, it is happening. We want to thank those media outlets who, so far, have shown they are willing to be part of the change. 

​Six tips on reporting on alcohol and drug use

​Avoid using words like ‘addict’, ‘alcoholic’ and ‘user’. Instead, reference an individual by what they are – parents, professionals and so on. Ask the interviewee how they would like to be described.

  1. Use the words ‘substance use’ instead of ‘substance misuse’.
  2. In articles about alcohol use, avoid using images that make drinking appear glamorous, sociable or appealing.
  3. Always include support information with any article on drugs/alcohol.
  4. Only use images of alcohol and drugs where appropriate, and avoid using images of people in vulnerable conditions – including whilst drunk or unconscious.
  5. Drug paraphernalia should only be used where the context is informative.

Source: The Reporting of Substance Media Toolkit, created by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs and Adfam. More at

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