Depicting the racial identity of opioid users in news media coverage can influence whether people support policies that focus on drug treatment or punishment. That’s one central finding in an open-access paper published last month in Political Behavior by Assistant Professor of Public Policy Justin de Benedictis-Kessner and coauthor Michael Hankinson from George Washington University on the role of race and media in swaying public opinion and policy related to the opioid crisis.

Media coverage has brought the opioid crisis—which has been responsible for nearly three-quarters of drug overdoses in recent years—into sharp public awareness. In response, the public and policymakers have pushed for treatment-based solutions, in contrast with previous drug crises (for example, the crack epidemic of the 1980s) that focused on punishment more than treatment for substance users.

Why this difference in policy response? The researchers suggest it has to do with identity, especially racial identity.

Justin de Benedictis-Kessner headshot.

“People increase their support for treatment-based policy when they are shown stories of substance users who share their own racial identity.”

Justin de Benedictis-Kessner

The opioid epidemic has been different from earlier drug crises, such as the crack epidemic, in that it “cuts across lines of class, race, and ideology, and reaches more rural, whiter, conservative, and less wealthy parts of the United States.” In contrast, the crack epidemic largely affected non-white, urban populations. Media stories on the current drug crisis, de Benedictis-Kessner and Hankinson write, tend to focus on how the crisis “affects different people and places” and feature more white and rural substance users in news stories and photographs.

“These differences in the identities of opioid substance users may be what has caused public opinion and subsequently public policy to support treatment rather than punishment much more than during past drug crises,” de Benedictis-Kessner and Hankinson write.

An exhibit on "The Faces of Fentanyl" at DEA headquarters in  Arlington, Va.,

In an experiment in which they varied the details and photos in news stories on opioids, the researchers studied how identity might affect support for treatment- and punishment-based policies. In addition to examining the role of race in media depictions, they looked at the effect of gender and location. They also studied the intersecting roles of blame and identity in policy support.

The authors found a troubling result: race was central in shaping policy support. “We show that people increase their support for treatment-based policy when they are shown stories of substance users who share their own racial identity,” de Benedictis-Kessner and Hankinson write. The type of opioids a user started with—heroin versus prescription pills—also moderated the assignment of blame and subsequent policy support. In contrast, they found that gender and geography had a much weaker effect on policy support.

“The portrayal of the opioid crisis as predominantly affecting white populations may have increased policy support among white constituents and policymakers,” the researchers write. “Yet our findings also suggest that health crises disproportionately affecting communities of color—such as COVID-19—may be less likely to receive similar support for compassionate medical policy if the media portrays them as accurately having such disproportionate impacts.”


Banner image: A billboard advertising treatment for opioid addition stands in Dickson, Tennessee. AP Photo/David Goldman | Inline image: An exhibit on "The Faces of Fentanyl" at DEA headquarters in Arlington, Virginia. AP Photo/Gemunu Amarasinghe | Faculty portrait by Martha Stewart

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