Criminal activity or treatable health condition? news media framing of opioid analgesic abuse in the United States, 1998-2012

Emma E. McGinty, Alene Kennedy-Hendricks, Julia Baller, Jeff Niederdeppe, Sarah Gollust, Colleen L. Barry

Research output: Contribution to journalArticlepeer-review

73 Scopus citations


Objective: 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. Methods: 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 instrumentwas 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. Results: 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. Conclusions: 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.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)405-411
Number of pages7
JournalPsychiatric Services
Issue number4
StatePublished - Apr 1 2016


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