As the editors of the second iteration of Covering Addiction, a project-based journalism class at Temple University, we spent the Spring 2018 semester discussing best practices for ethical reporting and storytelling with our fellow student reporters. And we’d like to use this space to share some of our decisions and efforts with you — the readers.
Our goal was to present problems when we could point to potential or existing solutions. We recognize there is enough negative coverage of addiction in the media, and we hoped to counter this by rethinking the reporting process. We did this by building our own ethical guidelines for the class and by engaging directly with the community we were writing about.
One of the biggest ethical discussions we had as a class revolved around language. What words are appropriate for us to use to tell others’ stories?
We came to the consensus that we would avoid using stigmatizing language in our class discussions, reporting and writing. We would stick to person-first language, use medical terminology approved by The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and consult the Addiction-ary when we weren’t sure which words to use. That’s why we always refer to someone as a person who has an addiction or a person who is in recovery.
Because addiction can be traumatic for those who’ve struggled with it, we also discussed how to best protect our sources, who we recognize have trusted us to write about some of the most vulnerable parts of their lives. In some cases, this meant we only used a source’s first name or omitted other identifying factors.
We also discussed what visuals would best complement our coverage and respect our sources. In doing so, our class decided to avoid the kinds of negative images often overused by news organizations when covering addiction — like dirty needles lying on the street or people actively using drugs. Instead, our photos largely focus on people in recovery and doing well, or places of refuge for those struggling with addiction.
At its core, this project is about people — those who need help with their addiction, those who are in recovery and those who want to be educated about addiction and recovery issues. With this in mind, a large portion of our efforts as a class was dedicated to holding community engagement tables throughout the city to hear directly from the people we were writing about. This way we could understand how to approach the topic and focus on what others found most important — not just our own interests.
We chose several spots throughout the city, from West Philly to Fishtown to Kensington, and we asked people to answer three questions for us: How has addiction impacted your life? If you could design a solution for addiction, what would it look like? And what is the news media missing when we write about addiction?
We asked people to write down their answers on index cards, and we referenced them as we chose our stories and searched for solutions to report on. We also asked the sources in our stories to share a thought or experience on an index card themselves, and you can find scanned copies of their handwritten notes scattered throughout the online project.
We hope you are as informed and inspired by the people whose stories fill this project as we were.
Thank you for reading.
Jenny Roberts, Executive Editor Julie Christie, Managing Editor Sydney Schaefer, Visuals Editor