A few years back, I complained to a newspaper over a headline referring to someone as a ‘junkie’. I said it was pejorative. The newspaper didn’t feel there was a case to answer. A friend wrote to the Press Complaints Commission who said the complainant had to be the person that the headline was about – effectively someone already attacked and disempowered. It would have been easy to despair, but it takes time to change attitudes. That’s how we handled it then.
Years later are we doing any better?
There’s a great article by Edward Fox on the Talking Drugs website which suggests we’re not. Called ‘the UK’s shameful stigmatisation of heroin users, the article focuses on the media response to a harm reduction initiative to reduce the spread of blood borne viruses. In response to the announcement he use of the term ‘junkie’ was peppered around some of our newspapers.
Why bother with this? What harm does it do? Fox explains:
Not only does this stigmatization quell any public empathy toward the issue, it is detrimental to people who use heroin problematically seeking treatment. In a 2012 report by the UK Drug Policy Commission(UKDPC) and the Society of Editors, titled Dealing with the Stigma of Drugs: A Guide for Journalists, it was noted how “negative connotations attached to the word ‘junkie’ made it more difficult to encourage addicts to join rehabilitation programmes.” Indeed, why would people who have been discriminated against so heavily by the mainstream media feel that they would receive fair judgement upon submitting themselves to treatment?
Why indeed? There is some hope for change though. The Sydney Morning Telegraph was censured by their press regulator following Philip Seymour Hoffman’s death for the headline ‘Kids grieve for junkie actor dad.’ Says Fox:
The headline was removed within an hour of publication, but the damage had been done, and on August 7, Australia’s Press Council ruled that their Standards of Practice had been breached by the article, deeming the use of the term “junkie” to be “highly unfair and offensive.” It’s sad that no such step seems likely to be taken in the UK.
Edward Fox reminded me of the frustration I felt a few months back. I wrote about it then and it still stings to read it back:
Thomas McLellan, a prominent US addiction researcher and policy advisor, lost his son to an overdose in 2008. A month or two back he wrote a piece in the Huffington Post. He recounts that during a recent interview a journalist referred to the late actor Philip Seymour Hoffman as ‘a weak piece of shit’. Says McLellan: “Even as I sit here several days later, I am dumbstruck by the callousness, the audacity, and most of all, the ignorance of this comment.”
Stigmatisation is bullying, it is an attempt to disempower and it keeps people locked in active addiction. It simply sucks the hope away. Despite these dispiriting examples, I do have hope for the future and it is because the voices of people who have overcome addiction are growing stronger. Nowadays recovery has a face and a voice. Recovering people and those who support them aren’t putting up with this, not for themselves and not for those still struggling with addiction.
Writers like Fox highlight the issue. Bloggers blog, Tweeters tweet and FaceBookers post on how unacceptable it is. The more we do, the more stigma and prejudice is diminished. I would encourage those reading this far to click on the social media links and link to this blog, or better still to Edward Fox’s article and get the message out there. It’s well past time to ditch pejorative terms like ‘junkies, alkies and smackheads’.