Effects of media representations of drug related deaths on public stigma and support for harm reduction



Sumnall HR, Atkinson A, Montgomery C, Maynard O & Nicholls J (2023) Effects of media representations of drug related deaths on public stigma and support for harm reduction. International Journal of Drug Policy, 111, Art. No.: 103909.

Background Drug related deaths (DRD) are at historically high levels in the United Kingdom (UK), but some approaches that have the potential to reduce risk of mortality remain controversial. Public support makes an important contribution to drug policy development but there are high levels of public stigma towards people who use drugs (PWUD), and this is partly shaped by media representations. We investigated whether depiction of the characteristics of decedents represented in news articles about DRD was associated with differences in stigmatising attitudes and support for harm reduction policy. Methods We undertook a cross-sectional online study with a randomised design, conducted with a nationally representative sample (UK). Participants (N = 1280) were randomly presented with one of eight simulated news stories that reported on a DRD that differed with respect to drug (ecstasy or heroin), and the gender (male or female) and age (younger or older) of the decedent. Data were analysed using MANOVA. Results Data were obtained for 1248 participants (51.0% female; mean age 45.7±15.4). Stigma was higher towards depictions of male, older, and heroin deaths (all p < .001). Harm reduction support was higher in those participants seeing older compared to younger subjects (p = .035), and the older ecstasy decedent compared to younger decedent (p = .029). Conclusion Presentation of some types of DRD are associated with higher public stigma towards the decedent than others. Those groups developing agenda-setting activities designed to reduce stigma or foster public support for harm reduction policies should consider the different ways in which audiences may respond to the depiction and framing of DRD in news media.

Stigma; News media; Drug related death; Public opinion

International Journal of Drug Policy: Volume 111

Publication date31/01/2023
Publication date online30/11/2022
Date accepted by journal01/11/2022
PublisherElsevier BV

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Dr James Nicholls
Dr James Nicholls

Senior Lecturer in Public Health, Health Sciences Stirling