How Media Fuels the Opioid Crisis

How Media Fuels the Opioid Crisis, Lynn R Webster, MD, @lynnrwebstermd

Data reporting by the media about the opioid crisis can be confusing, but when it is repeatedly reported inaccurately, it creates a perception of truth. Misinformation by the media can lead the public to demand quick fixes that won’t solve the problem and can make things even worse.

Inaccurate Media Reporting 

Here’s an example of how that works, and why it is important that we have accurate reporting:

The Washington Post’s Christopher Ingraham’s September 20, 2016 blog entry, “Prescription painkillers are more widely used than tobacco, new federal study finds,” cites inaccurate data. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), prescription opioid-related deaths were about 14,000, not 19,000, in 2014, as Ingraham reports. The CDC revised previous estimates in March 2016. This is important because there has been a decline in prescription opioid related deaths since 2012. The message is much different if it’s couched as an improving situation rather than in the way Ingraham portrayed the problem.

In addition, the CDC does not say “opioid painkillers killed nearly 19,000 Americans.” It reports on deaths that were associated with prescription opioids, but does not have adequate information to determine whether prescription opioids caused, contributed to, or were only present in a decedent at the time of death.

The CDC reports, “…since 1999, the number of overdose deaths involving opioids (including prescription opioid pain relievers and heroin) nearly quadrupled.” Because the CDC’s statistics combine deaths that are due to polysubstance use and those that are caused by prescription opioids, it would be inaccurate for a journalist (or anyone else) to conclude that those deaths were caused entirely by the latter. Some of them probably were, but the CDC doesn’t know the percentage.

Christopher Ingraham also opined that Americans have a “voracious appetite” for opioids. This, too, is misleading, because it conflates medical use with non-medical use. Worse, it suggests the demand for opioids is ubiquitous, which is not true. About 50% of prescribed opioids for acute pain are not used by the patient. Instead, they sit in medicine cabinets where they can be stolen and diverted for many reasons, including to make money or to get high. The federal report Ingraham cites makes the distinction by clarifying that 84 percent of the time, psychotherapeutic prescription drugs are used appropriately. America has an enormous opioid problem along with an enormous need for pain relief.

Omitted from the column is the fact that opioids are the only available and affordable treatment for millions, largely because payers are unwilling to pay for alternative therapies. America does have a voracious appetite, but it is to live a life where pain is tolerable. That, in turn, can contribute to the opioid problem.

But the media, in its hunt for compelling headlines, frequently sacrifices accurate reporting for a story that fuels narratives pushed by people with agendas. The Washington Post is not alone in misrepresenting the data.

Media Framing the Opioid Crisis as a Criminal Issue 

Emma E. McGinty, PhD, of Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, Baltimore, Maryland, was the lead investigator on research about media reporting of the opioid crisis. According to Medscape Medical News, Dr. McGinty’s team found that “The news media frames the prescription opioid abuse crisis largely as a criminal issue rather than as a public health problem or treatable health condition.”

Her research has found “some promising shifts in news coverage of the issue over time ― for example, a shift away from law enforcement-focused solutions and toward prevention-oriented solutions.” That said, very few news stories describe opioid addiction as a treatable health condition or portray people with such addiction undergoing successful treatment. Even fewer articles discuss the limitations people in pain have in obtaining pain relief.

Dr. McGinty adds, “Research suggests that in the absence of these depictions in mainstream news coverage, it may be difficult to garner public and policy makers’ support for expanding evidence-based substance use disorder treatment in the US.” I would add that the media’s frequent failure to report the magnitude of the pain crisis also prevents appropriate response to the pain crisis.

Media Myth: Babies Born Addicted

Another myth that is continually perpetrated by the media is the increase in “babies born addicted to opioids.” To see an example of a headline-grabbing newspaper story, click on this Philadelphia Inquirer Daily News article. A Google search for “addicted babies” turns up 565,000 hits. “Addicted newborns” has 371,000 results in Google. “Born addicted to opiates” has 545,000 Google matches.  Babies cannot be born addicted, but that doesn’t seem to matter to many journalists.

Interestingly, a Google search for Neonatal Abstinence Syndrome (NAS) turns up only 183,000 results. Neonatal abstinence syndrome is the medical terminology for babies who are born dependent, but apparently, its relative neutrality makes it less appealing for editors and bloggers.

Public opinion that is formed by misinformation doesn’t help solve problems. The media plays an important role in avoiding sensationalism and correcting any misinformation they print.

Journalists can make honest mistakes, but when those errors are repeated time and time again, they distract readers from the discussions that need to take place to honestly address the problems.

The public should politely but purposefully insist on honest, rather than hyperbolic or inaccurate, reporting. And the media should comply. After all, both journalists and the public are seeking the same thing: truth.


Purchase my book, The Painful Truth: What Chronic Pain Is Really Like and Why It Matters to Each of Us (available on Amazon), or read a free excerpt here.

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Copyright 2016, Lynn Webster, MD


  1. Anne on October 15, 2016 at 10:51 am

    Thanks for setting people straight Dr. Webster!

  2. Sherry on October 19, 2016 at 10:23 pm

    Yes and they just admitted that it’s the fentanyl doing it. Maybe we should look at all the corruption in the DEA

  3. MJP on November 5, 2016 at 7:47 am

    Doctors need to be left alone to do the work they were trained to do! I agree we need honest, accurate information to make informed decisions. The media spends much more time reporting on the addiction and the criminal element associated with pain medication than it does on how many it has helped. This places patients, as well as doctors who sincerely care about individual patient care, at risk.

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