I didn’t call myself an addict, so neither should you

October 20, 2017

Earlier this week I was on Good Day Philadelphia discussing a recent editorial I wrote for The Philadelphia Inquirer about my experience giving birth as a woman in recovery. I was relieved when co-host Alex Holley introduced me using person-first language: Jillian, she said, is an assistant professor of journalism at Temple, and a person in long-term recovery.

After I left the studio, I wanted to share the segment with my colleagues. However, according to the web headline, I had devolved to “recovering addict” status. I was upset, but not surprised.

I teach a course in Klein College’s Department of Journalism at Temple University called Solutions Journalism: Covering Addiction. On the first day of class, we review the syllabus; on the second day, we review language.

Prior to publishing my own creative work in the addiction space, I didn’t fully understand the stigma attached to the language I used, either. Terms like “addict” and “alcoholic” were used by the mainstream media everyday, so I followed suit and used that same terminology.

One day I got a call from Brooke Feldman, a Philadelphia recovery advocate and person in long-term recovery. If I changed the language I used, Feldman said, the recovery community would be more receptive to my work, and I would therefore do better journalism.

Initially, I was on the defense. The public already knows the words “addict” and “alcoholic,” I said, so why should the media replace them with new language, when they can instead destigmatize through the stories they tell the language that already exists?

Thankfully several years later, I’ve come to understand that’s not how stigma works. In January, Michael Botticelli, the former director of the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy, released a memo called Changing the Language of Addiction. He encouraged executive branch agencies to adopt person-first phrases, like “person with a substance use disorder,” and “person in recovery.”

In that memo, Botticelli cited a study from 2010 that found that even highly trained mental health clinicians were more likely to negatively judge individuals described as “substance abusers” than they were people who “have a substance use disorder.”

Now, if that’s how the failure to use person-first language affects mental health professionals, imagine how it affects the general public.

After that memo was released, The Associated Press removed the words “addict” and “abuser” from their stylebook. So, if you’re a journalist describing someone as “an addict,” you’re not following AP style. You’re also, if your subjects haven’t described themselves as such, being inaccurate. And finally, you are likely limiting the number of people in recovery who are willing to give you an interview.

So here’s what I tell my students, that I’d like to share with all journalists reporting on addiction: In your own words, always describe someone using clinically appropriate language. In your subject’s words, allow them to describe themselves. A person in recovery can call themselves “a recovering addict,” but you can’t call them that unless that descriptor is a direct quote that you attribute to that individual.

Also, Harvard’s Recovery Research Institute has an Addiction-ary, which includes much of the clinically appropriate language you need for your reporting. It not only defines addiction and recovery jargon journalists might encounter while working on a story, but it also flags stigmatizing language, such as abuse, addict, clean, dirty and more. Before writing your story, consider the harm that stigmatizing language might cause the individuals on whom you are reporting.

Finally, if you make a mistake and use language that you later realize was stigmatizing or inaccurate, fix it immediately. I emailed the producer at Fox, and she quickly updated the headline and thanked me for bringing the issue and appropriate terms to her attention.