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For Media

Best Practices and Guidelines for Reporting on Overdose

The guidelines outlined on this page have been created for the international community of journalists, freelance writers and content producers who cover, write about and/or discuss matters of public health, and in particular, overdose.

The media has a unique opportunity to play a critical role in educating the broader public on overdose awareness and substance use as a matter of public health.

These recommendations are synthesized from information provided by the World Health Organization (WHO) as part of their overdose education and SOS initiative, AOD Media Watch Australia, documentation provided by Shatterproof, and data collected by the U.S. National Institute of Health.

The recommendations have been inspired by the professionals in other sectors who have changed the way we frame other public health issues in reporting by offering a more sensitive and fact-based framework of reference, and who have inspired hope for those seeking support and all impacted by these critical issues of public health.

7-point checklist for appropriate reporting on overdoses

Recommendations for appropriate reporting on overdoses

DO THIS

Report on the individual involved using person-first language.

Place emphasis on the person rather than the behavior, condition or disease.

Use phrases such as “person who uses drugs”, “person experiencing substance dependence” or “person in recovery”.

HERE'S WHY

Reporting on the individual using or assigning negative language might enhance the stigma of drug use or play a role in preventing a person from seeking support.

Words like “addict”, “drug abuser”, “user’’ and “alcoholic” can be pejorative and isolating to people who use drugs. Person-first language is more neutral and inclusive to the vast number of people who use drugs in our communities.

DO THIS

Report using language that does not assume or imply intent.

Preference using neutral and fact-based language. Use the terms ‘fatal’ or ‘non-fatal’ overdose.

The term ‘overdose’ is best in most cases as an accurate word describing when a person has too much of a drug – or multiple drugs – in their system for their body to manage. ‘Drug-induced death’ may also be used.

HERE'S WHY

Overdoses are inherently complex. They can be intentional, unintentional or of undetermined intent and, in fact, determining intent can be difficult. Appropriate data is often not captured or may be unclear in many cases so treading with caution is advised. Placing emphasis on intent without facts distracts the reader from the person involved, those grieving, and the broader public health issue of overdose and how it can be addressed.

Terms such as ‘drug poisoning’ or ‘toxicity’ are often preferred over the word ‘overdose’ to prevent readers from drawing conclusions about the person involved and their behaviors. Yet terms like this should be used with caution as they can be stigmatizing to people experiencing dependence and can distract readers from the issue. 

Note, terminology has become increasingly contested as the crisis of opioid-involved deaths deepens, and it is important to be aware of the political implications of different terms. For more information about the debate around overdose and poisoning terminology, see this NY Times article.

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Overdose affects everyone. From grieving families to spontaneous first responders, the impacts of overdose are far-reaching and fall indiscriminately.

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