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Psychiatr Serv. 2016 Apr 1;67(4):405-11. doi: 10.1176/ Epub 2015 Dec 1.

Criminal Activity or Treatable Health Condition? News Media Framing of Opioid Analgesic Abuse in the United States, 1998-2012.

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Dr. McGinty, Dr. Kennedy-Hendricks, Dr. Baller, and Dr. Barry are with the Department of Health Policy and Management, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore (e-mail: ). Dr. McGinty and Dr. Barry are also with the Department of Mental Health, Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore. Dr. Niederdeppe is with the Department of Communication, Cornell University, Ithaca, New York. Dr. Gollust is with the Division of Health Policy and Management, University of Minnesota School of Public Health, Minneapolis.



Opioid analgesic abuse is a complex and relatively new public health problem, and to date little is known about how the news media frame the issue.


To better understand how this issue has been framed in public discourse, an analysis was conducted of the volume and content of news media coverage of opioid analgesic abuse over a 15-year period from 1998 to 2012 (N=673 news stories). A 70-item structured coding instrument was used to measure items in four domains that prior research suggests can influence public attitudes about health and social issues: causes, solutions, and consequences of the problem and individual depictions of persons who abuse opioid analgesics.


Although experts have deemed opioid analgesic abuse a public health crisis, results of our study suggest that the news media more often frame the problem as a criminal justice issue. The most frequently mentioned cause of the problem was illegal drug dealing, and the most frequently mentioned solutions were law enforcement solutions designed to arrest and prosecute the individuals responsible for diverting opioid analgesics onto the illegal market. Prevention-oriented approaches, such as prescription drug-monitoring programs, were mentioned more frequently in the latter years of the study period, but less than 5% of news stories overall mentioned expanding substance abuse treatment, and even fewer mentioned expanding access to evidence-based medication-assisted treatments, such as buprenorphine.


Findings underscore the need for a concerted effort to reframe opioid analgesic abuse as a treatable condition addressable via well-established public and behavioral health approaches.

[Indexed for MEDLINE]

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