An Open Letter to The New York Times: Stop Using “Addict” to Describe People

To the Associate Managing Editor for Standards,

I recently read Jennifer Percy’s feature in The New York Times Magazine titled: Trapped by the ‘Walmart of Heroin’ published on October 10, 2018. As a subscriber of The Times and resident of Philadelphia, I was glad to see more attention and quality reporting on this important issue. I was moved by the stories highlighted in the piece; however, there was one thing that jumped out at me and seems glaringly antiquated: The consistent use of the term “addicts” when referring to people with an addiction in this story.

I am a communications professional at a public health organization in Philadelphia. I recently updated our style guide, and a colleague of mine suggested that we make it clear that our publications should not use this outdated terminology. After reviewing literature on the topic, the decision to avoid using terms like “addicts” to describe people with an addiction seems obvious. Our judgement was thoughtful, deliberate, and evidence-based.

Just this year, research was published showing that terms like “addicts” provoke strong subconscious negative views in an audience. Robert D. Ashford, one of the authors of the study and a researcher at the University of Pennsylvania and the University of the Sciences told Philadelphia’s WHYY: “Terms that seem to label the person — and invoke the negative attitudes toward the person rather than the disease — those are the ones that have the higher levels of bias.” This follows research published in 2010 which showed that even among highly trained mental health professionals the choice of terminology in describing people “evokes systematically different judgments” and “may perpetuate stigmatizing attitudes.”

Local Philadelphia news have been covering this story for a long time, and earlier this year the Philadelphia Inquirer, Daily News, and updated their style guide to remove stigmatizing terms like “addicts” and instead use a phrase such as “a person with an addiction.” The local media outlet BillyPenn also doesn’t use the term “addicts” to describe people in their reporting. These organizations followed the Associated Press, which updated its style guide in 2017 to no longer use the term “addict” as a noun. This simple update still allows readers to understand the news without unintentionally biasing them.

The Ethical Journalism handbook published by The New York Times states: “The Times strives to maintain the highest standards of journalistic ethics.” I hope that The New York Times will recognize that continuing to use a term like “addicts” is antithetical to its mission of striving for the highest ethical standard in its reporting. I ask you to please join other media organizations in recognizing the importance of this choice in wording and update The New York Times style guide to support this ethical and evidence-based change.

Thank you for considering my comment.

Justin Gero, MS


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