The 'J' Word & Journalism

Written by Matt Gleeson on . Posted in HR Practice

I have a confession to make. I'm a Twitter junkie. As soon as I say that people know what I mean. The word, 'junkie' is an evocative word, that paints a picture of compulsive behaviour that interferes with other facets of the 'sufferers' life. This is why journalists use the word junkie. It provokes and paints a picture with a single word. When used to describe people who inject drugs, the 'j' word presents a two dimensional cartoon. An image of an emaciated person prepared to rob his or her mother to get their 'fix'. It is stereotyping of the worst type. Fortunately I am not the only person to think so.
The excellent publication, The media guide to drugs: key facts and figures for journalists (DrugScope 2011) states:
"The world is shaped by the language we use. Consider the confining impact of a word like 'junkie'. The person is dismissed, written off, blurred into a stereotype of defining a person by their action rather than who they are."
Despite this sage advice, in my homeland of Australia, the Australian Press Council reporting guidelines regarding drugs and drug addiction do no contain a single guidance regarding the use of stigmatising language, instead focussing on the prevention of dissemination of information that may encourage or enable drug use.
In western democracy our news media claim a role enshrined in the term the 'Fourth Estate' as guardians of the public interest, but is it really in the public interest to shame and vilify certain groups or individuals within our communities? The use of the word 'junkie' creates a sense of otherness, that somehow people who inject drugs are less than other people in the community. I would argue that not only is this not in the interests of the individual who injects drugs, but that it is also not in the interests of our communities.

The 'j' word kills people

QuoteWhen the media stigmatises people who inject drugs it reduces the likelihood that they will disclose their drug use to another, whether it be a family member or a service that is trying to reduce drug related harm. If they do disclose to a loved one that they inject drugs, subsequent media reporting only contributes to the distress that a family member may experience. Beyond the very personal experiences of stigma felt by drug users and their families, such reporting can only act as an impediment to meaningful discussion about how we can address drug related harms in our communities, and so people continue to die in often preventable circumstances.

What can we do?

Despite numerous services providing recommendations and information about how to report on alcohol and other drug matters in a responsible and non stigmatising manner there remain news media outlets that continue to stereotype drug users as junkies.
Thankfully, with the advent of increasingly accessible social media platforms, news media is no longer the exclusive domain of journalists and editors keen to sell some advertising space. These new platforms for social news allow us to take control of the message and portray people who inject drugs as well ...people. As a sector we need to create news that is balanced and non-stigmatising and engage mainstream media outlets to do the same. We also need to challenge directly misconceptions and stigma by publicly questioning mainstream media representations of people who use drugs. Two great examples of this are the blogs Limit of Shunt and The Australian Heroin Diaries.
Most of all we need to insist that the 'j' word be removed from journalism. I have recently begun collecting a series of news articles that use the word junkie. Pick one. Write to the media outlet. Ask them to stop using the 'j' word.

Related links 

Matt GleesonMatt Gleeson is a blogger, educator and advocate of harm reduction. Matt currently works with the Education and Training department of UnitingCare ReGen in Melbourne, Australia. He is also the founder and chief content developer of the Stonetree Harm Reduction website. All opinions expressed are his own.
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