All too often the media representation of drug users is two dimensional at best. The stereotypical representation of drug users in the media can be enormously damaging not only to drug users themselves but also to their family members and has implications for both drug treatment and harm reduction efforts. This article examines three classical stereotypes of drug users utilised by the media and discusses the issues incumbent in them.
It’s not difficult to find representations of drug users as ‘bad’. The offending media is very easy to spot, just look for the word ‘junkie’ and yell ‘Bingo’. The incitement of moral panic by perpetuating the myth that drug users are bad people leading morally reprehensible lives is ingrained in our social consciousness. Sure some people who use heroin do bad things. So do some people who drive cars or who use computers. So why then do we make the connection between drug use and ‘bad’ behaviour?
The reality is that many of the perceptions regarding the morality of drug use have been shaped by a range of historical and social factors that had little if nothing to do with drugs and drug use.
The excellent resource ‘Why wouldn’t I discriminate against all of them?’ , examines the historical determinants that have supported the stigmatisation of drug users and found that the historical, political, social and economic changes that occurred over the last 200 years have informed the current discourse on drug use and drug users that has resulted in drug users being stigmatised.
The media plays a twofold part in this drama: firstly as a reflection of the common attitudes to drug use that have been shaped by the last 200 hundred years of history, and secondly as perpetrators of the myths and stereotypers that portray dug users as bad people, continuing the cycle of stigmatisation.
The link between the portrayal of drug users as bad people and the resulting damage incurred is not difficult to draw. Drug users, regardless of the context of their individual drug use, have all too often faced discrimination in the realms of the law, employment, health treatment and socially, premised upon the idea that drug users are people who are not to be trusted.
Often the province of media reporting about dependent drug use and overdose amongst young people, the media portrayal of drug use as a cautionary tale comes with its own potential harms. The archetypal story of this kind paints the picture of once happy young people, who started experimenting with drugs and through some happenstance, experienced dependency or indeed overdose.
The most apparent difficulty with this type of reporting is that it does not ring true with many young people’s experience of drug use, therefore posing little in the way of deterrent effect. Additionally, this kind of reporting often only contributes to a moral panic about drugs and rarely provides anything in the way of evidence based information about the risks associated with drug use and how people can reduce these harms. Drug dependency and overdose are important issues and should not be ignored by our society or indeed by the media, however inciting fear rather than an evidence based discussion of how we can reduce the occurrence of drug related harm only encourages young people to hide their substance use rather than discuss it openly.
This story archetype follows the pattern of I once was lost, but now I’m found. It is a tale of struggles and deprivation that ultimately end in the individuals redemption through some form of recovery. Stories of hope are important to people seeking to change their drug using behaviour, but they can also contribute to the sense of otherness that people who have not entered recovery are subjected to. Not everybody who uses drugs wants, or needs recovery. If the only socially acceptable way for me to disclose my drug use is to state that I am in, or seeking recovery, where does that leave the millions of people who use drugs that are not?
In short these types of stories can reinforce the concepts of moral behaviour that have been shaped by history rather than evidence and contribute to the stigma that non recovering drug users experience.
We need to continue to tell the stories of hope and recovery, as well as acknowledging the sadness that ensues when we lose a person to an overdose, but we also need to ensure that this is balanced with messages that cater to the needs of all drug users within our community.
We need to foster an acknowledgement that we are all drug consumers, whether it be licit or illicit drugs, thereby reducing the sense of ‘otherness’ experienced by some in our communities. We can do this by ensuring that we regularly question and test our own beliefs and prejudices regarding drug use and drug users. We can do this by ensuring that we vocally support media stories that provide factual, non judgemental reporting of drug issues. Where there is a lack of factual, non judgemental media coverage of drug issues we can become the media creators ourselves. Thanks to online social networks, simple to use applications and accessible media production software, now more than ever the means of media production is in the hands of you and me.
What we chose to do with this power is completely up to us.
Matt Gleeson worked in the Alcohol and other Drugs / Harm Reduction sector in Australia for over 20 years. He previously ran the Stonetree Harm Reduction website, producing social marketing materials and articles promoting harm reduction. Matt currently works as a health promotion office in Melbourne, Australia and spends his spare time as a live music photographer. All opinions expressed are his own.