This fall, Reporting on Addiction co-directors Ashton Marra and Jonathan J.K. Stoltman officially launched journalism school curriculum at five universities, including West Virginia University, to train students on how to talk about substance use disorders to reduce the stigma and discrimination associated with addiction and recovery.
Marra, teaching assistant professor in the WVU Reed College of Media and executive editor at 100 Days in Appalachia, and Stoltman, director of the Opioid Policy Institute, began their work in the summer of 2020 and officially launched Reporting on Addiction in September 2021, coinciding with National Recovery Month. During that time, they created a set of trainings for student journalists, media organizations and addiction science experts. They also developed research-based reporting guides and a searchable database of addiction subject matter experts from across the country.
Jonathan J.K. Stoltman
“Drug use has been a topic in the news for decades, and it is often reported in inaccurate and harmful ways,” Marra said. “But this reporting is generally not malicious – most journalists just haven’t had training on the topic, and they don’t have access to reliable sources for accurate information.”
The Reporting on Addiction team, which also includes Dr. Mishka Terplan of the Opioid Policy Institute and Kristen Uppercue, deputy editor of special projects at 100 Days in Appalachia, have spent the past two years talking with academic experts, addiction medicine treatment providers, people with lived experience and media professionals to better understand the problems with media coverage of addiction.
“Journalists play a crucial role in public perception of addiction,” Stoltman said. “When media professionals are inaccurate or use language and themes that have been shown to increase stigma and discrimination, their reporting can do more harm than good – real harm that further stigmatizes already marginalized populations, contributes to drug-related deaths and backwards policy.”
Marra and Stoltman offer customized trainings for journalists that cover the most up-to-date understanding of addiction science, the role of stigma and discrimination and tailored information related to their media organizations’ respective cities, states or regions. The trainings for addiction medicine and science experts include information on how the media works, best practices for interacting with journalists and tips for disseminating information to a broader audience.
In addition to implementing curriculum with its inaugural class of journalism instructors at WVU, Kent State University, Slippery Rock University, Eastern Kentucky University and Utah State University, Marra and Stoltman have conducted workshops and 1:1 support for college newspapers, professional newsrooms, state press associations and at national conferences including the Rx Summit, College of Problems on Drug Dependence, American Association for the Treatment of Opioid Dependence and American Academy of Addiction Psychiatry.
“By working with both student and professional journalists, we know we’re playing the long game. Change will not come overnight, but in a short time, we’ve seen progress in the field,” Marra said. “Over the next two years, I’d like to get in front of every state press association to discuss with journalists and editors the importance of shifting their coverage and implement curriculum at universities across the country. But it feels good to know we’re really doing something, and I hope we start to see a shift in the media that, in turn, shifts public perception and ultimately saves lives.”
Marra teaches news writing, video storytelling and community-focused journalism in the WVU Reed College of Media. As executive editor for 100 Days in Appalachia, she oversees the work of a team of editors, contributors and reporters across the region. She has spent more than a decade working as a professional journalist for both public media and commercial news outlets on local, state and national platforms, including NPR and ABC News. She is a two-time graduate of the WVU Reed College of Media.
Stoltman earned a Ph.D. in lifespan developmental psychology from WVU in 2019 and has worked as a researcher focusing on opioid addiction treatment and recovery since 2013. His academic work has appeared in leading journals and national conferences and focuses on addiction stigma, the media and digital approaches to addiction treatment.
Visit www.reportingonaddiction.org to access resources including the expert database, to apply for a customized training, to learn more about Reporting on Addiction or to contact members of the team.
Recovery from addiction is possible. For help, please call the free and confidential treatment referral hotline (1-800-662-HELP) or visit findtreatment.gov .