Media Portrayal of Substance Use

Media Portrayal of Substance Use

Exaggeration, distortion, inaccuracy, sensationalism; each of these labels has been consistently applied to the reporting of drug related issues in the print and other media over the last 40 years and beyond.
(Coomber et al., 2000: 217)

As the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC, 2012: 3) noted in their submission to the Levenson Inquiry into the culture, practice and ethics of the press:

Harmful recreational drugs provide popular material for the press. Stories typically focus on the threat posed by drugs, drawing on examples of severe injury or, more usually, death caused by their consumption. Other stories draw on statistics to seek to demonstrate rising levels of drug use, or harms caused by drugs, including in terms of associated crime. Reports are ubiquitous in local press of court cases where crimes are alleged to have been committed by someone with a drug problem.

The UKDPC were concerned about the influence of media reporting around substance use in two primary areas. They expressed concern that the depiction of celebrities and other significant people who experienced problems related to drug use was fuelling stigma experienced by people trying to overcome drug dependence and rebuild their lives.  They described how people are portrayed as ‘former heroin users’ in articles in which previous drug use is irrelevant. Stereotypical and negative representations of particularly heroin and crack cocaine users as criminal outsiders who threaten the fabric of modern society and middle-class sobriety is normal in the media. Such portrayal is seen as demonising and further marginalising drug users, conditioning public attitudes about the ‘drug problem’ and providing an uncritical platform from which politicians and other ‘moral entrepreneurs’ are able to wage a ‘war on drugs’. Beyond this, the use of terminology such as ‘the war on drugs’ creates an image and perception of drug users as the enemy.

Secondly, the UKDPC were concerned that the media was able to put pressure on politicians and policy makers to make quick policy decisions based on exaggerations and inaccuracies relating to drugs and drug use, rather than sufficient and balanced evidence collection, and they are not alone. The House of Commons Science and Technology Committee (2006) expressed concern in its 2006 report “Drug Classification: making a hash of it?” that media responses to the reclassification of cannabis from a Class B to a Class C drug in 2004 were influential on the then Home Secretary’s referral of the matter back to the Advisory Council on the Misuse of Drugs (ACMD). In 2009 the increased use of the synthetic stimulant mephedrone, particularly by young people, gained a great deal of attention in the media. In March 2010, the ACMD recommended that mephedrone should be categorised as a class B drug, becoming law in April 2010, and marking one of the shortest times between the first identification of a drug and controls being passed to make its use illegal. Eric Carlin, a member of the ACMD resigned in 2010 following this recommendation stating that he felt the decision was “unduly based on media and political pressure” and with “little or no discussion about how our recommendation to classify this drug would be likely to impact on young people’s behaviour”.

The UKDPC were also critical of the accuracy of wider media coverage relating to mephedrone at this time. Prominent in the media and the resulting debates relating to the harmful effects of mephedrone were several teenage deaths that mephedrone was ‘linked to’ or ‘blamed for’. The first of these was that of 14 year-old Gabrielle Price, however toxicology reports later showed that the cause of death was “cardiac arrest following broncho-pneumonia which resulted from streptococcal A infection”. One of the most widely reported cases involved the deaths of two teenagers near Scunthorpe, Louis Wainwright and Nicholas Smith, who were reported to have died after taking mephedrone. In this case, the coroner’s report later revealed that it was the opiate-substitute methadone, rather than mephedrone, that had actually caused their deaths.

As Forsyth (2001) notes, the news media can present a distorted view of deaths related to illegal drugs which can have serious implications for public opinion, social policy and wider preventative measures such as drugs education. His study into media reporting of drug related deaths in Scotland in the 1990s found that a fifth of the 342 heroin-related deaths were reported in newspapers, a third of amphetamine-related deaths (36), and almost every ecstasy-related death was (26). However, only one in sixteen of the 460 methadone-related deaths was reported and only one out of 265 paracetamol-related deaths.

Similarly, McCandless (2009) reported that there were 44 deaths in England and Wales attributed to Ecstasy (MDMA) in 2008 according to the Office for National Statistics (ONS), and 47 deaths reported in the media, suggesting a reporting rate of 107%. In other words, all the Ecstasy related deaths were reported, and three deaths were attributed to ecstasy by the media where ecstasy was not actually involved. Further to this, McCandless (2009) reported that according to the ONS there were 19 deaths attributed to cannabis in 2008, however there were 92 reported deaths in the media, suggesting an over-reporting of cannabis-related deaths of 384%. Further analysis of the data reveals that although the number of deaths recorded on death certificates attributed to cannabis in conjunction with other psychoactive substances in 2008 was 19, the number of times cannabis alone was recorded as the cause of death was only three, and these did not relate to toxicity, but rather to fatal accidents under the influence of cannabis.

A cyclical scenario has potentially developed where media and political portrayal of substance use as a social issue to be addressed, has resulted in a public perception of substance use as inherently dangerous.  Unchallenged, this prevents governments from implementing pragmatic policies for fear that it will be used by political opponents to suggest that they are ‘soft on drugs’. As Bellos (1997) observed:
An essential part of democracy is for government policies to be questioned and criticised, a function normally undertaken by the media. However, the media tends to support the government view on illicit drug use without question, and in doing so has failed to play this important role.
(Bellos, 1997: 28)



BELLOS, A. (1997). The media and ecstasy. In: SAUNDERS, N. (ed.) Ecstasy Reconsidered. (pp. 28-35). London: Nicholas Saunders.

COOMBER, R., MORRIS, C. & DUNN, L. (2000). How the media do drugs: quality control and the reporting of drug issues in the UK print media. International Journal of Drug Policy, 11, (3), 217-225.

FORSYTH, A. J. M. (2001). Distorted? a quantitative exploration of drug fatality reports in the popular press. International Journal of Drug Policy, 12, (5–6), 435-453.

HOUSE OF COMMONS SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY COMMITTEE (2006). Drug classification: Making a hash of it? , London: The Stationery Office Limited.

MCCANDLESS, D. (2009). Drugs and the BNP: Introducing Information is Beautiful [Online]. The Guardian. Available:

UKDPC (2012). Press reporting of issues relating to illicit drug use - UK Drug Policy Commision submission to the Leveson Inquiry. London: UKDPC.

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