By Chris Adams
As the scientific understanding of addiction has changed, so too has the language around it.
For journalists, that means what they wrote or aired a decade ago might be considered scientifically unsound or demeaning. And as they are writing about pressing social issues such as the opioids epidemic, journalists are also finding that what might be the shortest way to say something – usually a good thing – might not be the best way.
In a session with National Press Foundation fellows, Dr. Sarah Wakeman of Harvard Medical School detailed how reporters can best convey the realities of addiction without slipping into imprecise or demeaning language. For starters, reporters should avoid words such as “dirty,” “clean,” “addict,” “abuse” and “abuser.”
Beyond that, terms with specific diagnostic meaning such as “addiction” and “dependence” should not be conflated. Reporters should understand the evidence and talk with medical experts.
This isn’t just the medical community talking. The Associated Press Stylebook in 2017 added a specific addiction entry, which notes: “Addiction to alcohol and other drugs is considered a disease that affects a person’s brain and behavior. It can cause changes in brain circuits and chemistry that lead to inability to control use, despite resulting harmful behavior including damage to health and relationships. Genetics, mental illness and other risk factors make certain people susceptible to addiction.”
Addiction is the preferred term for the disease, the AP says, although “substance use disorder” is preferred by some in the medical community.
Also: “Avoid words like alcoholic, addict, user and abuser unless they are in quotations or names of organizations, such as Alcoholics Anonymous.” Examples, the AP says: “Keene had trouble keeping his job because of alcoholism” – NOT “Keene had trouble keeping his job because he was an alcoholic.”