The news commonly reports about deaths from prescription opioid abuse. The natural assumption is that these reports spike after a rise in deaths. But a statistical analysis from the Children’s Hospital Informatics Program (CHIP) and the University of North Carolina indicates the reverse: opioid-related deaths increased two to six months after major media reporting.
“Our question was whether the press is providing perspective on what’s happening, or inadvertently fueling the problem by advertising the issue,” says senior investigator John Brownstein, PhD, of CHIP and the Division of Emergency Medicine.
In what may be first quantitative study of the relationship between drug abuse and the national news, Brownstein and his colleagues consulted death records from the National Center for Health Statistics from 1999 to 2005. They then compared these data to a Google News search of articles appearing during the same period, containing words such as codeine, oxycodone, OxyContin or fentanyl. As shown in the graph below, the deaths and the news reports correlated closely—but the news reports appeared to come first.
This analysis, published November 18 in PLoS One, doesn’t prove that news coverage caused any drug-related deaths, cautions Brownstein. However, he hopes the study will promote a dialogue about how drug-related stories are reported. “Specifics on how one might get high and how it feels should probably be mentioned with caution or even left out,” he says.