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Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers Research Paper


The war on drugs is not over yet and it is unlikely to be finished in the recent future. Americans are bombarded by messages about negative effects of substance abuse. Media provide a variety of stories about violent crimes associated with drug abuse.

Officials keep talking about the necessity to launch programs aimed at promulgating healthy life styles. Admittedly, these strategies will help develop appropriate public opinion on the matter. Nevertheless, it is important to take into account various trends existing in the society.

Thus, it is important to understand that the attitude towards substance abuse is not static as it is constantly changing. It is also crucial to make sure there is no bias in media representation of substance abusers as this negatively affects development of the American society.

Finally, it is important to understand to what extent the image created by media does influence people and shapes their attitude towards substance abuse.

Therefore, it is possible to state that appropriate media representation of substance abuse may help develop American society where drugs are seen as something harmful, unnecessary and needless.

To develop appropriate strategies aimed at promulgating healthy life styles, it is necessary to make sure that they will be based on extensive data on substance abusers. According to Kugler and Darley (2012) the very image of drug abusers has changed throughout decades.

In the twentieth century, “the media supported a punitive approach to drug policy” (Kugler & Darley, 2012, p. 217). Drug abusers were depicted as people who were often engaged in violent crime activities.

Reportedly, Americans had concerns that their close ones might become victims of a variety of crimes associated with drugs (Kugler & Darley, 2012). Nonetheless, the perception is changing as people start adopting less punitive approach in the twenty-first century.

According to Kugler and Darley (2012, p. 217) “only 30 percent of the public now believes that the government should emphasize arresting drug users” and there is growing support of legalization of such substance as marijuana. In many states across the country, more and more people are changing their viewpoint on the matter.

Marijuana is not seen as a harmful drug anymore as it is regarded as another medication. These trends signify the shift in public opinion. Now drugs are not regarded as primary concern in the American society.

As has been mentioned above, media representation of drug abusers is subjected to a variety of prejudice. According to Cobbina (2008), racial and ethnic minority groups are often depicted as substance abusers. These groups of people are often associated with drug-related crimes.

Cobbina (2008) implemented research based on analysis of more than 100 newspaper articles. The author found that African Americans had often been depicted as substance abusers and criminals who threatened order in the American society.

Drug Use in 2002-2011 by Race

Fig..1. Drug Use in 2002-2011 by Race. This figure illustrates the rates of drug abusers among different race groups (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).

At this point, it is necessary to point out that race is not the defining factor when it comes to substance abuse. According to US Department of Health and Human Services (2012) Asians turned out to be the ethnic group with lower rates of substance abusers compared to other ethnic groups (see Figure 1).

In 2011, the rate of substance abusers were as follows, African Americans (10%), whites (8.7%), Hispanics (8.4%) (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012). Clearly, race is not the defining factor affecting people’s choice. At the same time, education and socioeconomic factors play primary roles (US Department of Health and Human Services, 2012).

Minorities often face a lot of discrimination and they often have fewer opportunities. This may lead to lack of self-esteem which, in its turn, may lead to drug abuse. Nonetheless, the data show that ethnic groups have quite similar rates of drug abusers.

Irrespective, of these data media continue developing an image of a substance abuser as a person of color who is often engaged in unlawful activities. Beckett et al. (2005) provided illustration of the image that persisted in the society in the end of the twentieth century and in the beginning of the twenty-first century.

According to Beckett et al. (2005), the image of a non-white drug abuser is still strong and still affects the way police treat criminals and suspects.

Now many people tend to believe that black or Hispanic drug abusers must be punished severely as they may be engaged in a variety of violent crimes whereas white drug abusers should be let off with warnings and fines and some public works.

The reasons why people of different racial groups become substance abusers are also seen differently. White substance abusers are often seen as victims of unemployment, lack of opportunities, bad environment, etc. When it comes to people of color, many consider substance abusers to be criminals, not victims.

It is necessary to note that this image also persists in media which can have a variety of effects on the contemporary American society. According to Shaw, Whitehead and Giles (2010) media representation shapes public opinion and especially young people’s attitudes towards substance abuse to a considerable extent.

The research implemented by Shaw, Whitehead and Giles (2010) illustrates this assumption. Thus, Amy Whitehouse is seen as a talented young female who became a victim of substance abuse. At that, she is seen as a victim of drug dealers.

Though, the singer somewhat romanticized substance use in her works, people do not think that she stimulated young admirers to start taking drugs. On the contrary, her sudden death can be regarded as a precaution to all who might consider taking drugs.

Amy Whitehouse is an illustration of an image of a white young female who is rather a victim of unfavorable environment. Shaw, Whitehead and Giles (2010) analyzed a number of newspapers articles and it turned out that those sources created the image of a victim.

It is possible to elicit another image. Cobbina (2008) provided an illustration of another image. When it came to white arrestees, they were regarded as those who bought the substance for personal use.

Again, white abusers were represented as victims who tried to escape from reality as they did not find another way to address their problems associated with financial constraints. At the same time, people of color were depicted as criminals who sold and bought drugs and were drug abusers.

It is possible to note that media have created an image of a black arrestee who is a criminal and a threat to the American society.

Clearly, these two images have been created on the basis of a variety of biases. People tend to think that people of color often live in poor neighborhoods with few opportunities and this, as people think, inevitably leads to drug abuse.

More so, many think that people of color choose criminal path and become a threat to the entire society. At the same time, white abusers are regarded as victims of criminal groups.

It is also necessary to note that media representation of substance abusers affects public opinion. Notably, many people keep talking about romanticizing of drugs use as many films and songs create images of a drug abuser who is creative, strong and free.

However, latest surveys show that this representation is not enough to make young people start taking drugs (Shaw, Whitehead and Giles, 2010). Though, socioeconomic factors play essential role.

Obviously, better life conditions and ‘healthy’ environment will encourage people to live without drugs. Media should also show the other side of drugs without emphasizing such points as ethnicity or race.

To sum up, it is clear that media representation of drug abusers is subjected to changes. It reflects trends existing in the society. However, it also influences the way people see substance abusers. Therefore, it is possible to launch various programs and initiatives to make people understand that drugs are harmful and unnecessary.

Media can provide numerous stories creating adequate image of a drug abuser. Of course, this representation should be free from any bias. People cannot continue thinking that white substance abusers are only victims that should be understood and forgiven while people of color should be severely punished if associated with substance abuse.

This wrongful representation leads to the situation when some people enjoy impunity whereas others are pursued for slightest mischief.

Reference List

Beckett, K., Nyrop, K., Pfingst, L. & Bowen, M. (2005). Drug use, drug possession arrests, and the question of race: Lessons from Seattle. Social Problems, 52(3), 419-441.

Cobbina, J.E (2008). Race and class differences in print media portrayals of crack cocaine and methamphetamine. Journal of Criminal and Popular Culture, 15(2), 145-167.

Kugler, M.B. & Darley, J.M. (2012). Punitiveness towards users of illicit drugs: A disparity between actual and perceived attitudes. Federal Sentencing Reporter, 24(3), 217-221.

Shaw, R.L., Whitehead, C. & Giles, D.C. (2010). “Crack down on the celebrity junkies”: Does media coverage of celebrity drug use pose a risk to young people? Health, Risk & Society, 12(6), 575-589.

US Department of Health and Human Services. (2012). Results from the 2011 national survey on drug use and health: Summary of national findings. Retrieved from

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"Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers." IvyPanda, 24 June 2019, ivypanda.com/essays/substance-abuse-media-representation-of-drug-abusers/.

1. IvyPanda. "Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers." June 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/substance-abuse-media-representation-of-drug-abusers/.


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IvyPanda. "Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers." June 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/substance-abuse-media-representation-of-drug-abusers/.

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IvyPanda. 2019. "Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers." June 24, 2019. https://ivypanda.com/essays/substance-abuse-media-representation-of-drug-abusers/.

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IvyPanda. (2019) 'Substance Abuse: Media Representation of Drug Abusers'. 24 June.

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