October 28, 2016

Police in Hope, Indiana this week released a photo of a 25-year-old mom who overdosed on heroin with her 10-month-old child in the backseat. They are following a precedent set in September by cops in East Liverpool, Ohio, and by a shopper at a Family Dollar Store in Lawrence, Mass.

The photos and videos go viral on social media, and outlets far and wide republish them. Their stated reason for running the photos is the same as the police and citizens who share them: To raise awareness of the opioid crisis.

If that’s truly their goal, and they aren’t interested in sensationalism or shaming people at one of the worst moments of their lives, they can do more than publish a handful of statistics about how rampant the crisis is.

When folks ask me if it’s ethical to publish such photos, I ask myself: Have they made a good-faith effort to truly shed light on the problems in their individual communities? Here’s what I look for:

  • Links to all of the other fabulous investigative work and explanatory journalism your newsroom has done on the crisis.
  • Links to work that other journalists have done. This Los Angeles Times multiple-part investigation explains how the maker of OxyContin, Purdue Pharma, bears significant responsibility for the current crisis. This Associated Press-Center for Public Integrity investigation documents how opioid drug makers outspend the NRA 8:1 on lobbying efforts that prevent public policies that would make it harder for people to get opioids in the first place.
  • Information about many treatment beds are available in the community where the images were taken and how many treatment beds are available in the community where the images are published.
  • Resources that addicts and their families can tap.
  • Efforts to minimize harm. This would include cropping out or blurring faces of minors. It could also include not naming the adults or showing their faces. After all, the goal is to raise awareness, not shame people, right?
  • Links to information on country, state and federal levels where individuals can see what legislation or public policy efforts are pending and how they might influence those efforts.

When I see at least three of these steps, I’m willing to believe the individuals and news organizations sharing these heartbreaking images are interested in raising awareness. Absent that, I’m pretty sure the motives are sensationalism and shame.

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Kelly McBride is a journalist, consultant and one of the country’s leading voices on media ethics and democracy. She is senior vice president and chair…
Kelly McBride

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