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How media coverage of the opioid crisis has changed over time – Varsity




The last decade has seen a steady increase in Canadian media coverage on opioid use. The mounting number of opioid-related deaths — over 9,000 since 2016 alone — has led to the characterization of the issue as a crisis or epidemic.

A 2019 University of Toronto-affiliated study analyzed trends in news reporting related to opioids in Canada from 2000–2017 to understand how the portrayal of the issue has changed in the media over time.

Co-authors Dr. Fiona Webster, a medical sociologist and an associate professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Western University; and Dr. Abhimanyu Sud, a physician and an assistant Professor in U of T’s Faculty of Family and Community Medicine, discussed the findings of their research with The Varsity.

“The point is not to demonize or vilify the media, or any particular journal per se, but to look at how the media both creates and reflects back to us what our own social values are, [and] what our own beliefs are,” Webster said.

An evolving narrative

In their analysis of 826 Canadian news articles, the emergence of prominent themes around opioids varied greatly from 2000–2017.

The authors noted a clear departure from discussions dominated by clinical pain care and the promise of opioid treatments in the early 2000s to growing concerns over the highly-addictive nature of the substance and critiques of the pharmaceutical industry at the turn of the decade. Concern over physician prescribing practices and deceit by the pharmaceutical industry were then replaced by an emphasis on the illicit drug market and its adulteration with fentanyl in the latter half of the 2010s.

“We found in our study that pharma’s role in all of this for the most part disappeared from view as the crisis continued,” said Webster. “And we thought that was very interesting, and it is important to tell that story.”

Critical content analysis

To identify the underlying societal values and beliefs that have influenced the definition of the opioid crisis in public discourse, the authors used an approach called ‘critical content analysis.’

This method involves “looking at [opioid coverage] with a view not just to describe what we found, but to think about who benefits from these types of stories, [and] who’s being excluded or marginalized,” explained Webster.

The analysis was in part informed by critical theory and what has been termed the ‘new capitalism,’ especially due to its implications across social life. In the case of opioids, individuals with chronic pain or experience with opioids are often among the most vulnerable members of society, and the consequences of advanced capitalist practices materialize through what Webster describes as “ongoing attacks on social welfare systems.”

“We could see that people were being positioned as criminals… [which feeds] into people’s ideas that we should be reducing social benefits for people, that these types of people are somehow unworthy of our attention and our support as a society.”

This belief is closely tied to that of personal responsibility in health, which has led to the moralization of health issues, such as substance use and dependence. Indeed, a 2017 research study showed that patients with substance use disorder face higher stigma for their condition in society than those with other psychiatric disorders.

“That… neoliberal positioning is related to this idea that people are individually responsible for things like their own health, and that view completely ignores the structural and social inequities that produce health disparities,” said Webster.

Beliefs such as these are especially harmful because they not only reinforce stigma against already-marginalized groups, but also preclude conversations about systemic change.

Defining the scope of the problem

The authors noted frequent use of sensational language to characterize opioid use by Canadian news outlets when tackling the opioid problem.

And yet, defining the scope of the issue itself, along with its origin in particular, was often nebulous. “Is the crisis the drugs? Is the crisis how the drugs are used? [We] need to be specific about the locus of the crisis if we want to actually address it,” said Sud.

The authors also identified repeated efforts to assign blame to particular groups or individuals, such as the government or physicians, as a prominent theme. References to criminality — illegal drug use, drug trafficking, and drug-seeking behaviour — were also found to be a recurrent topic in articles attempting to define the nature of the problem.

Furthermore, their findings showed a tendency for high-risk opioid use to be described as a self-contained phenomenon. This is opposed to academic research, which shows it existing in conjunction with other substance use problems and mental health conditions, as well as socio-structural determinants of health.

When asked about her thoughts on the relative lack of coverage on these underlying factors, Webster cautioned against taking too simplistic of a view, but theorized that “It reflects the values of our society and the fact that we would rather think that these problems are caused by drug cartels and street users.”

Indeed, the opioid crisis does not exist in a vacuum; there are many institutional and systemic forces at play. Webster noted that deep-rooted issues such as racism, classism, and gender bias are all implicated in the rise in overdose-related deaths. However, this nuance is rarely captured in news articles.

A telling example is the relative absence of reporting on the impact of opioids on Indigenous communities in Canada, despite there being extensive evidence of Indigenous people being disproportionately affected. This effect is attributable to a historical social context of intergenerational trauma, colonialism, and racism that has been inflicted onto Indigenous people.

The social construction of the “legitimate” versus “illegitimate” opioid user narrative

The authors sought to draw attention to the ways in which the opioid crisis was being socially constructed, and in particular, the ways in which media reporting distorted reality.

A pervasive narrative theme identified in their analysis was the idea of the legitimate versus illegitimate user. Legitimate users were those who became dependent after being prescribed opioids by a physician.

“They don’t misuse [opioids] or divert them or crush them or sell them, but they use it to treat their pain,” Sud noted of the typical media portrayal. “Most explicitly, they’re no junkie.” They were described as ‘the common person’ — otherwise upstanding citizens who had fallen victim to misfortune. Importantly, legitimate users were those perceived as being worthy of care.

“We call this a critical analysis… because we look at what’s there, but you also look for what’s not there, or… what’s not explicitly constructed versus what’s explicitly constructed,” Sud explained.

“So in constructing this legitimate patient, you construct also the illegitimate patient, the person who’s a junkie, who uses street drugs, who’s not working, who’s not employed, and [who’s] not contributing to larger society,” he continued. “This was one of the most… telling sort of construction, because we see this is in the discourse around solutions and interventions around the opioid crisis, and it creates a lot of problems because it pits people against each other.”

The ‘junkie’ stereotype is neither new nor accurate, and as Webster noted, these individuals are often characterized in “very one-dimensional ways,” which is not only stigmatizing but damaging for families who have lost a loved one to overdose.

And while these categorizations themselves are problematic, Sud explained that they can create even more problems when used as the basis for policy.

This work comes at a critical time, as an unprecedented overdose crisis unfolds in Canada and across North America, and media reporting plays an increasingly influential role in shaping the public’s perception of the issue.

Both Sud and Webster reflected on the need for people to “be careful consumers of media of all forms,” and to think critically about the types of stories being told rather than just accepting them at face value.

Disclosure: Indhu Rammohan is the President of the Canadian Students for Sensible Drug Policy U of T Chapter.

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Athletes, fans take to social media to mourn Kobe Bryant's death –



The sports world, and the world as a whole, lost a titan on Sunday as NBA legend Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in a helicopter crash at the age of 41.

Fellow NBA players, celebrities and fans took to social media to express their grief.

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Island Voices: Ecological crises deserve better media coverage – Times Colonist



I was 14 when North Korea invaded South Korea in 1950. As an adolescent, I was more preoccupied with puberty-related personal issues than politics. But when Canada sent military personnel as part of a UN effort, I religiously followed the battle lines. Every day, the local paper’s front page reported how troops were doing, with a map showing enemy and allied movements.

Now we face an even greater challenge, but it’s not always reflected in headlines.

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In October 2018, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change released a terrifying report on humanity’s impact on the chemistry of the atmosphere — the source of air, weather, climate and seasons. Our emissions have increased average global temperatures by at least 1 C since pre-industrial times, causing ice sheets and glaciers to melt, and wildfires, hurricanes, floods and droughts to become more widespread and intense.

At the 2015 Paris climate conference, all nations committed to reduce greenhouse gas emissions so temperatures wouldn’t rise by more than 2 C by 2100. The IPCC report concluded a rise above 1.5 C will cause climate chaos. We’re on a trajectory to reach 3 C or more! The report gave a glimmer of hope that we could escape catastrophic climatic consequences by reducing emissions by 45 per cent by 2030 and completely by 2050.

The IPCC study didn’t garner the same kinds of headlines or urgent stories as the Korean War. Soon after its release, Canada legalized cannabis, which pushed everything else to the media sidelines. The IPCC target of cutting emissions in half within a decade and completely in three decades is a narrow window, with enormous ecological, economic and political repercussions, yet the urgent call to action was a one-day, low-key media event.

Last May, the UN released a major global biodiversity study showing humanity has caused species loss comparable with mega-extinctions in which up to 90 per cent of plants and animals disappeared. It’s not just whales, tigers and penguins that are endangered; insects, the most abundant, diverse and important animals, have been devastated by decades of poisons pumped into air, water and soil.

Now, up to a million plant and animal species are in imminent danger of vanishing. As Earth’s top predator, we depend on nature’s productivity and services — exchanging carbon dioxide with oxygen, filtering water in the hydrologic cycle, creating soil, capturing sunlight, renewing protoplasm, etc. Climate change and large-scale extinction are intimately related consequences of human activity with enormous repercussions for us, yet when Prince Harry and Meghan had a baby last May, media coverage of species extinction disappeared.

Our great evolutionary advantage — intelligence — has served us well. But we’ve become such a powerful presence that our collective impact is driving changes in the physical, chemical and biological properties of the planet on a geological scale — leading some to call this the Anthropocene epoch.

Confronting climate and extinction challenges with the urgency they deserve must dominate our thoughts and priorities. Every day, media report on Dow Jones averages, the S&P index, the value of the loonie, the price of a barrel of oil, the current status of companies such as Google, Amazon, Apple, Exxon and Toyota, and celebrity and sports news.

But what about the real things that matter to us? How many tonnes of pesticides were spread around the globe or plastic into the ocean? How many species have vanished? How many plastic microbeads, hormone mimics and carcinogens have we consumed? How many hectares of land have become desert? How much carbon dioxide have we added to the air? How many tonnes must be reduced to keep temperature from rising above 1.5 C? So many numbers are of far greater importance for our species’ future than stock market values, yet media often ignore them.

We’ve frittered away two of the 12 years we have to halve our greenhouse gas emissions. Where is the daily discussion about concrete ways to reduce them? What about job opportunities acting on ecological crises will create?

It’s said that Nero fiddled while Rome burned. What are we doing while the planet is burning? So blinded by our success as a species, we’re preoccupied by our own amusement, comfort, hyperconsumption, businesses and politics.

We proceed down this path at our peril.

David Suzuki is a scientist, broadcaster, author and co-founder of the David Suzuki Foundation.

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