Reporting on opioids: Breaking the news or fueling the epidemic?

24233396News stories ranging from high-profile government hearings to celebrity scandals point to an increasing trend in the abuse of prescription opioids, such as OxyContin. But is the media merely reporting these news stories, or is it possible that their coverage of opioid abuse is piquing the public’s curiosity and subtly (if unintentionally) encouraging them to give the drugs a try?

A retrospective study by John Brownstein, PhD, of the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP) and Children’s Division of Emergency Medicine, compares data from Google News Archives with death records from the National Center for Health Statistics. The natural assumption, Brownstein says, is that increases in deaths from opioids would be followed by increases in media coverage of the problem, reflecting reporting on issues of social concern. But statistical analysis showed that the reverse was true — within two to six months after major media reporting, opioid-related deaths increased.

Though the research shows a correlation, the authors can’t definitively say that media stories are responsible for the increased opioid abuse. Addiction is a multi-factorial problem that entails social environment, genetics and personal issues, as well as prescribing practices and pharmaceutical promotion. Because the team did not investigate those factors, they cannot say whether or not news coverage is a stronger factor.

However, the team hopes their study will inspire dialogue about responsible news reporting. “Specifics on how one might get high and how it feels are probably things that should be mentioned with caution or even left out of the news,” Brownstein says. The paper cites several drug-related news articles where reporters described, in vivid detail, the sensations of drug use. Such details should be withheld, the team says, a recommendation similar to what psychiatrists and professional journalism organizations recommend for stories about suicides; under those guidelines, specific details are withheld so as not to inspire copycat suicides.