Op-ed: Philly’s paper of record just removed the word ‘addict’ from its stylebook, and so should you

It’s time for news outlets to adopt language that doesn’t stigmatize.

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Jeffrey Stockbridge / For Billy Penn
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On Monday, assistant managing editor David Sullivan sent the Philadelphia Media Network newsroom an email regarding a stylebook update:

The news organization, which comprises the Inquirer, Daily News and Philly.com, will no longer use the word “addict” to describe an individual who is addicted to alcohol, drugs, or other scheduled or illegal substances.

Instead, the update directed, editorial staff should use person-first language, such as a person “who is addicted to heroin” or a person “in (or with) addiction.”

It’s time for all other news outlets to follow suit.

As an individual who teaches a journalism course on addiction reporting — and has been called by the news media a “recovering addict” (when I’ve never referred to myself as such) — I believe my credentials qualify me to say this.

Newsrooms: We’ve been patient with you while you’ve pleaded ignorance, but we’ve come to the point where enough is enough.

Calling an individual an “addict” despite all of the negative baggage associated with the word neither abides by the Society of Professional Journalists’ Code of Ethics (because it causes harm), nor does it consider language recommended by the American Medical Association, the American Society of Addiction Medicine, the International Society of Addiction Journal Editors, the American Psychological Association or the American Psychiatric Association.

In a sense, by communicating information using inaccurate, outdated language, if you use that phrasing in your reporting, you’re not doing your job properly.

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Email screenshot of PMN's stylebook entry

The push for a shift in wording was endorsed by the nation’s highest-ranking drug policy officials last year. In January 2017, Michael Botticelli, the former director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy, released a memo to executive departments and agencies called Changing the Language of Addiction. In that memo, he encouraged them to shift to person-first phrases, such as “person with a substance use disorder” and “person in recovery.” Botticelli’s memo cited a study from 2010 that found that even highly trained clinicians were more likely to negatively judge and penalize individuals described as “substance abusers,” than they were “people with substance use disorder.”

That memo and research inspired the Associated Press to update their famous stylebook’s addiction entry. AP style no longer recommends the words “addict” or “abuse,” and also suggests users avoid words like “addict,” “alcoholic,” “abuser” and “abuse.”

Some local Philadelphia outlets, including WHYY, adjusted their internal stylebooks to match immediately following this change. It’s great that PMN has finally come to the same realization.

Of note, the updated AP listing is more extensive than PMN’s. It contains a mention that there is, in fact, a difference between addiction and dependence. So if you’re running a headline that describes babies as addicted, well, that headline is actually not true — they’re dependent. But I suppose that’s a whole different fight.