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Needles, powder, blood, and people overdosing

The Tired Narrative: 

On September 8, 2016, the City of East Liverpool, Ohio posted graphic images of two parents who overdosed in their car with a toddler in the backseat. "We feel it necessary to show the other side of this horrible drug," reads the Facebook post justifying the brutal images, originally shared without blurring the adult's or toddler's faces. "We are willing to fight this problem until it's gone and if that means we offend a few people along the way we are prepared to deal with that." 

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News articles are also often accompanied by stock photos and caricatures of injection drug use.

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The Informed Narrative: 

Unrealistic stock imagery does not accurately represent or portray the reality of injection drug use. Images of people who are injecting drugs must be used carefully and with the full consent of the subject. There is a fine line between documentation and exploitation. 

"The opioid epidemic has shown that journalism still slouches toward sensationalism. It has become the most fatal drug crisis in modern American history, and much of its coverage perpetuates the class warfare that has lingered since the 'war on drugs' began in the 1970s,"  

Ryan Christopher Jones, a freelance photographer, wrote in the New York Times. 

Rather than zoom in on needles and blood, photo essays about drug use, addiction, and recovery should focus on the people. A positive example of this can be found in The New York Times.  


The news media aims to represent the reality of drug use in a neutral, realistic way. However, using exploitative photos of addicted people, unrealistic depictions of injection drug use, and other images that create an element of illicitness and fear undermine the fundamental objectives and principles of journalism. Rather than showcase the humanity of people who use drugs, images of injection drug use–– needles and blood––create distance between the subject and the reader, resulting in dehumanizing, alienating, and othering people suffering from a medical condition. See "I'm So Sick of Opioid Disaster Porn" in Slate

Connect with Expert Sources

Ryan Christopher Jones, photojournalist

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Nigel Brunsdon, photographer

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Maia Szalavitz, journalist, Vice News

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