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Language and Media

Stigma is the mechanism by which people who use alcohol and drugs are often marginalised.

There is a growing consensus that stigma is not just a symptom of a problem, but is a significant component of the challenge faced in addressing problem alcohol and drug use. Recent discussion on stigma has focused on the language people use and how people are portrayed in the media.

The Reporting of Substance Toolkit was a resource for journalists and editors looking to report on alcohol and drugs with dignity and respect.

The toolkit contains 5 Key Recommendations to follow when reporting and also has interviews with family members and people in recovery, information about support services across the UK, photography advice and resources for further information.

5 Key Recommendations for Journalists and Editors


  • Images of alcohol and drugs should only be used where appropriate in articles.

  • Images of people in vulnerable conditions – including whilst drunk or unconscious – are stigmatising. These images should always be avoided.

  • Articles about alcohol harm should not contain images which make drinking seem glamorous, sociable, or appealing.

  • Drug paraphernalia should only be used where the context is informative.

  • Images should tell the human side of the story in a positive and responsible way. Photos of interview subjects, support services, and/or the community featured in the report should be used instead.


  • Stigmatising language such as ‘user’, ‘addict’ and ‘alcoholic’ should be avoided. Journalists and editors should use language appropriately, referencing interview subjects as parents, professionals and so forth. Interview subjects should be asked how they would prefer to be described.

  • Examples of best practice include saying ‘substance use’ instead of ‘substance abuse’. Words like ‘druggie’ or ‘junkie’ should always be avoided.


Case Studies

  • There are many people who are happy to share their stories in a bid to help others to find support. Some people may prefer to share their experiences anonymously and this should be respected by the journalist.

  • Journalists and editors should spend time getting to know people and learning more about their experiences. Interview subjects deserve to be treated as humans. A person’s story might be ignored because it is not ‘interesting enough’, but all stories are worth telling if they can help others into recovery.

  • Interview subjects should be offered copy approval of their own quotes and contributions.


Support Information

  • Support information should always be included in any article that is reporting on alcohol and/or drugs.


Education and Stigma

  • Lived experience stories will not only be more compelling for readers but will actually help others. By including honest accounts of alcohol/drug use and recovery you can promote the message that people can and do recover.

  • People usually remember a story more vividly if it reflects the human experience, helping readers to relate and empathise more with those involved.

  • There are many support groups and recovery communities that are happy and willing to speak to journalists. We recommend that journalists and editors reach out to groups and communities to learn more about their work.

The Reporting of Substance Media Toolkit is created by Scottish Families Affected by Alcohol and Drugs and Adfam. A working group has also supported the creation of this toolkit with a family member, a person in recovery, Camilla Tominey from The Telegraph, Drink and Drug News, and Alcohol Health Alliance UK.

‘This toolkit will prove an invaluable resource for journalists wanting to report respectfully on alcohol and drugs. For far too long there has been confusion and upset over the way stories of alcohol and drug use are reported. This toolkit will at last act as a one-stop-shop for print and broadcast media wanting to provide informative, accurate and most importantly – sensitive content on one of the most prevalent problems for society today.’ – Camilla Tominey, The Telegraph

To get in touch with any questions about this toolkit, please contact Rebecca Bradley or Rob Stebbings

The video below is an interview of SHAAP Chair and Hepatologist Dr Alastair MacGilchrist by Health Journalist Jennifer Trueland addressing the reality of alcohol use disorder from a medical perspective and explores the importance of the role of journalists in breaking down stigma and stereotypes. It forms part of the toolkit. Recorded on 9 June 2022. 

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