Insert Standard Stigmatising Headline & Image Here

Insert Standard Stigmatising Headline & Image Here: Rewriting the Media’s Portrayal of Addiction and Recovery is a research project and programme from Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs and the Scottish Recovery Consortium. Both charities shared concerns around the stigma towards people with addictions, and the lack of lived experience highlighted in the media.

‘The media need to not report what they think people want to hear but what they need to hear (funnily enough it may be a more positive message). There needs to be a cultural shift that media has a part in influencing’ – Person in Recovery

Scottish Families supports anyone affected by someone else’s alcohol or drug use, which includes family members, friends, colleagues, and anyone you say is your family. The Scottish Recovery Consortium supports, represents, and connects recovery across Scotland by working with recovery in all its forms, including the Recoverists network and a large community of people in recovery. With these large communities of people in recovery and family members, we were able to consult with them through an online survey and a face-to-face workshop to gather their views and opinions on the media’s portrayal of addiction and recovery. We also completed a thematic analysis of media articles and reports from late-2017 to mid-2019 to thoroughly analyse different tones and themes from the media.

With all of our findings, we were able to create an in-depth report and to write and provide six recommendations to journalists and editors on best practice for reporting on addiction and recovery going forward.

If you would like to chat about our Rewriting the Media work, please contact our Communications Development Officer Rebecca Bradley

Summary and Key Recommendations

Based on our findings from Rewriting the Media’s Portrayal of Addiction and Recovery, we have six recommendations for journalists and editors.

We can work together to create a safe space for people in recovery and people impacted by someone else’s substance use. We can all share positive messages and give the space and opportunity for people to share their stories and to highlight support services and recovery communities across Scotland.

1. Use positive imagery

Images of drugs, broken bottles, paraphernalia, and people in vulnerable conditions are negative and stigmatising and should be avoided. This reflects the general stock images of alcohol and drugs that are used in most media articles.

Michaela Jones (left) discusses her experiences here but the imagery focuses on her happiness in recovery with her rescue chickens that are an important part of her recovery journey.

Make the images more human, positive, and responsible. Use photos of the people who are interviewed, support services, or the community you are talking about.

To the right is an image from the campaign My Recovery Gave Me. A selection of images was launched in 2013 by the Scottish Recovery Consortium where positive images of recovery were created to combat the negative pictures of addiction that are commonly used.

 2. Adopt People-First language

Stigmatising language such as ‘user’ and ‘addict’ are seen time and time again in news articles. We see ‘drug abuse’, ‘drug user’, and many variants. People who are interviewed are titled ‘ex-addict’ or ‘former drug abuser’. All of this terminology is judgemental and causes harm. Journalists and editors should use People-First language when reporting on addiction and recovery.

A brilliant resource is ‘Language Matters’ which was developed by the Network of Alcohol and Other Drugs Agencies (NADA) in Australia and is used regularly by the Scottish charities, organisations, and services when talking about addiction.

For example, instead of saying ‘abuse’, you can say ‘substance use’. Or rather than saying ‘drug user’ you can say ‘person who uses drugs’.

We recommend that People-First language be used as a standard for anyone reporting on addiction. The one-page resource can be found here.

3. Use your article as an opportunity to educate

Lived experience stories will be more educational (and maybe more interesting for readers) than political quotes and statistics. By including honest accounts of addiction and recovery, you can promote the message that people can and do recover from addiction.

People usually remember a story more vividly if there is a personal story included. By including personal accounts, people can relate or empathise more with the people involved, thus educating society about addiction.

4. Always include support service information

Support information should always be included at the end of any article that is reporting on addiction. We have included some organisations below that you can include in your reporting:

Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs
A national charity that supports anyone affected by someone’s alcohol or drug use
Helpline: 08080 10 10 11
Helpline email:

Scottish Recovery Consortium
Supports, represents, and connects recovery across Scotland
Phone: 0141 552 1355

Scottish Drugs Forum
Scotland’s national resource of expertise on drugs and related issues
Phone: (Glasgow) 0141 221 1175 (Edinburgh) 0131 221 9300

Alcohol Focus Scotland
A national charity working to reduce alcohol harm
Phone: 0141 572 6700

Crew 2000
A harm reduction and outreach charity based in Scotland
Phone: 0131 220 3404

SHAAP (Scottish Health Action on Alcohol Problems)
SHAAP aims to provide an authoritative medical voice on the impact of alcohol on the health of the people of Scotland and to campaign for action to reduce this harm
Phone: 0131 247 3667

Know the Score
Information and facts about drugs

5. Learn about lived experience and the impact of stigma

Source: STV News

There are many support groups and recovery communities across Scotland who are happy and willing to speak to journalists.

Both Scottish Families and the Scottish Recovery Consortium are keen to work with journalism and media students to address this issue from the outset and help encourage positive reporting of this topic for the future workforce.

There are also regular events such as Recovery Walk Scotland which journalists can attend to learn more about recovery.

We recommend that journalists and editors reach out to groups and communities to learn more about their work.

Scottish Families service directory is full of support groups, treatment services, and community groups across Scotland you may wish to contact.

6. Include more positive stories reflecting recovery, support, and lived/living experiences

There are many people in Scotland who are happy to share their stories, as they want to be able to help other people get into support and recovery. We want journalists and editors to move beyond the urgent ask of ‘do you have a case study we can speak to today?’ towards spending time to get to know people and learn more about their experiences.

People deserve to be treated as humans rather than labelled as a ‘case study’. A person’s story can be ignored because it is not ‘interesting enough’, but every single person’s story is worth telling, and their experience will help someone else.

Online Survey Findings

We had over 50 responses to our online survey. The participants were asked to respond to a series of questions which included examples of headlines and images from articles. They were also asked to share their opinions on how they think addiction and recovery are portrayed in the media-.

Summary of survey results:

  • 98% of responses said that they didn’t think alcohol and drug issues were reported in the media in the right way
  • 80% of responses said that an image showing a needle in a street was harmful to people in recovery
  • An image of heroin paraphernalia was considered the most stigmatising image
  • 80% of responses said that headlines including the word ‘addicts’ were harmful to people in recovery
  • 100% of responses said that people involved in the media should be more aware of the impact their work can have on an individual, their family, their community, and wider society
  • 98% of responses said all articles discussing alcohol, drug, and other addictions should include information on support
  • 100% of responses agree that there should be guidelines for discussing addiction and recovery

Our Conclusion

The current portrayal of addiction and recovery in the media is generally negative, and the repeated use of stigmatising images and language is a regular feature in Scotland’s media.

While there have been very recent improvements (and there are always exceptions including some excellent journalists and editors who do their best to report fairly and positively), there is still a long way to go in changing the portrayal of addiction and recovery in the media.

Our communities of family members, individuals, and people in recovery told us in our online survey and workshop that the media seem unaware of the impact their coverage has on individuals and communities. But there were also messages about how the media plays a vital role in helping to celebrate recovery and to help people reach out for support.

With just a few changes, journalists and editors could have a positive impact – by not using stigmatising images and language, by including support information, and by sharing lived and living experiences.

‘The media causes so much damage and stigmatises people affected by addiction. More focus should be put on understanding how people recover, sharing the learning and celebrating recovery.’ – Survey Response


Alongside our report, we have interviewed several people to share their experiences of the media. We have interviewed a family member, a person in recovery and two journalists. Their experiences include positive coverage, showing dignity and respect, and connecting with communities.

Positive Media Coverage, with Sandra Holmes

Media’s Portrayal of Addiction and Recovery, with Donna

Dignity and Respect as a Journalist, with Karin

Connecting with Communities, with Sharon

Download Report

Download and read the full report for ‘Insert Standard Stigmatising Headline and Image Here: Rewriting the Media’s Portrayal of Addiction and Recovery’.

Reporting of Substance

After ‘Insert Stigmatising Headline and Image Here’ was launched, we were approached by Adfam to do a further collaboration on making a toolkit for journalists and editors.

The Reporting of Substance Toolkit is a resource for journalists and editors looking to report on alcohol and drugs with dignity and respect.

The toolkit contains 5 Key Recommendations to follow when reporting and also has interviews with family members and people in recovery, information about support services across the UK, photography advice and resources for further information.

The Reporting of Substance Media Toolkit is created by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs and Adfam. A working group has also supported the creation of this toolkit with a family member, a person in recovery, Camilla Tominey from The Telegraph, Drink and Drug News, and Alcohol Health Alliance UK.

View the toolkit here.

Stigma and Power of Kindness Workshops

For information about understanding stigma, we offer online and in-person courses that can be found in the Communities section of our website.

We are hosting these workshops nationally and regionally.  Are you interested in taking part?  Are you interested in partnering with us to bring this workshop to your local community? Contact to discuss.

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