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Does the Media Sensationalize Addiction?

The portrayal of drug use and substance abuse in the media is a complicated topic.

rich blonde woman using cocaineRacial, socioeconomic, and gender biases all impact how the news, movies, books, social media, and other cultural mirrors represent particular groups of people who use or abuse alcohol and other drugs.

Drugs and Alcohol Are Glamorous or Humanizing…If You’re White or Rich

The media has long portrayed substance use by wealthy, famous people as glamorous, fun and enviable. When pop artist Lorde released her song “Royals” in 2013, it was a rare critique of this idea. There was little difficulty with people understanding the references in the song to the glamorization of alcohol and drugs.

Substance use is often presented alongside luxury items like diamonds, private jets, expensive cars, and fancy clothing. These items have been paired together for so long and in such frequency that it is rarely questioned if they actually belong together.

As pointed out by Accuracy in Media, a Media Watchdog Organization, numerous critically acclaimed television shows have used drugs in the story lines of their protagonists as a way to make their white characters more appealing to audiences:

  • In Breaking Bad, the hero is a chemist who uses his skills to manufacture methamphetamine and sell it and pay for his cancer treatment.
  • On Nurse Jackie, actress Edie Falco sucks drugs up her nose through a straw—an action she repeats periodically throughout each program.
  • Weeds is the sympathetic story of a suburban mother and her children who grow and sell marijuana.
  • The hero in the series House is a doctor addicted to his own prescription drugs.
  • On That 70s Show, the teenage characters often sat in a circle in the main character’s basement and smoked marijuana, unbeknownst to his clueless parents upstairs.

Drugs and Alcohol Are Signs of Moral Corruption If You’re Poor or a Minority

Meanwhile, people who are economically disadvantaged, especially when they are minority individuals, are punished harshly for substance abuse. They are frequently depicted in the media as being morally deficient, unlike wealthy people who engage in the same behaviors.

For example, a homeless person drinking on a TV show or a movie is often the butt of jokes or portrayed as less than human. In both, reality and the media, homeless people who drink are frequently subject to violence and judgment.

Minorities Receive Less Empathy and Compassion

There are also biases related to the race of a person who is afflicted by addiction. The opioid epidemic that is spreading across the United States has seen a far greater response, not only from the media, but also from the government and the general population.

The Guardian showed how labels matter, when referencing the terms most commonly used to describe people struggling with addiction for their headline, Amid the Opioid Epidemic, White Means Victim, Black Means Addict. “Once our counterparts (white people) started dying, it was a public health crisis. But it wasn’t a public health crisis 15 years ago when I was in the field and going into black people’s homes, providing care for them,” the article quotes an addiction professional as saying.

Forbes pointed out, in The War on Drugs is a War on Minorities and the Poor, that there are a number of alarming statistics related to this double standard:

  • Black men are sent to state prisons on drug charges at 13 times the rate of white men.
  • Drug transactions among blacks are easier for police to target because they more often happen in public than do drug transactions between whites.
  • More than 25.4 million Americans have been arrested on drug charges since 1980; about one-third of them were black.
  • According to the Global Commission on Drug Policy, arresting and incarcerating people fills prisons and destroys lives but does not reduce the availability of illicit drugs or the power of criminal organizations.

Mommy Needs Her Wine

Even gender seems to have a role in how addiction is shown. According to a recent USA Today article, Alcohol is killing more people, and younger. The biggest increases are among women. The article states, “From 2007 to 2017, the number of deaths attributable to alcohol increased 35 percent. The death rate rose 24 percent. Deaths among women rose 85 percent, while it rose 29 percent for men. Women once drank far less than men, and their more moderate drinking helped prevent heart disease, offsetting some of the harm.”

The “Wine Mom” culture, where it is considered acceptable and even funny for middle-aged women to drink excessively to cope with the stresses of juggling parenthood, a career, menopause, and marriage, has taken hold in various aspects of media. Memes about it appear daily on Facebook feeds.

A New York Times article called Being a Sober Parent in a Wine Mom Culture, points out that this isn’t really a new trend, just a new expression of the idea that mothers are not capable of surviving their day to day ordeals without the aid of a substance. The article quotes Dr. Leena Mittal, a perinatal psychiatrist and addiction specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, as saying that there is a long history of chemical management of women’s distress. Tranquilizers widely prescribed to mothers in the 1950s and ’60s were known as Mother’s Little Helper. “This sends women the message that their emotions need to be squelched and not addressed,” she said.

Fair Oaks Recovery Center Focuses on Facts, Not Stereotypes

Fair Oaks Recovery Center believes in treating all people who are recovering from addiction with kindness, compassion, and respect. We tailor our services to the needs of each individual, in recognition that the recovery journey is as unique to each person as their fingerprint.

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