New study: Tracking opioid science in the news

As governments across the world grapple with the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic, several other urgent crises have taken a back seat. 

Among them is the opioid epidemic. Here in Vancouver, BC, where almost half of our team is based, the effects of this second, fatal crisis are visible every day. Just this May, our province reported a record-breaking number of overdose-related deaths: 170 in a single month, or about 5.5 a day. But the consequences of opioid addiction extend far beyond our city’s limits. In the US, annual death counts have also reached record highs — and appear to be rising with the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic

In light of this pressing issue, we decided to research the crisis from a communications perspective, analyzing more than 150 news stories to understand how online journalists report on scientific studies about opioid-related disorders. The results of analysis (published this week in Frontiers in Communication) suggest that, while the epidemic itself may remain controversial, news coverage of opioid-related science has not followed suit. 

Photo of opioid drugs

Opioid studies rarely receive online news coverage

“Solving the opioid crisis will involve confronting several big issues, including the causes underlying substance misuse and addiction as well as the social stigma surrounding addiction and mental illness,” says Lisa Matthias, a visiting scholar at the ScholCommLab and lead author of the study. “But I think at the bottom of these issues are larger questions of deservingness and credibility. Who deserves help? And what information do we trust when deciding how to provide that help?” 

Our study focuses on that second question, recognizing the critical role the news media can play in shaping how we approach health and social problems and possible solutions. Using data from Altmetric — a data science company that tracks online mentions of scholarly publications — our team analyzed how often opioid-related research was mentioned by top Canadian and US online news outlets between 2017 and 2018. While the crisis itself received extensive news coverage at the time — more than 8,500 stories across the nine outlets we analyzed — less than 2% of those stories mentioned any relevant research. 

These results are surprising, especially given continued calls for evidence-based responses to the crisis. “I would have expected journalists covering the crisis to bring in more opioid science,” Lisa remarks. “In my opinion, scientific research can help guide the way forward.”  

Photo by Tim Samuel via Pexels

Few news stories provide context about the opioid research they cover

Our team performed a detailed analysis of the news stories that did mention opioid research to understand how that science had been communicated to audiences. We found that most stories portrayed the opioid research they covered as being valid and credible — trustworthy information that audiences could rely on. 

In some ways, this finding offers hope, especially given that news coverage of other controversial topics, like climate change or vaccination safety, have historically framed scientific findings as more controversial or uncertain than they really are. But there are also drawbacks to portraying research findings as established facts, especially when the science behind them is still preliminary or emerging. 

“Importantly, we found that this framing of science as trustworthy was usually done by omitting details about the study rather than emphasizing the credibility or validity of the research,” Lisa explains. “Science was usually mentioned in passing, in the context of some larger issue. So there was rarely much discussion about the methods or limitations behind the results.” 

Covering science in a changing media landscape 

Of course, there may be practical reasons for this lack of context in science coverage. Attention spans are limited online, and journalists sometimes have to cut details to keep readers engaged. Our media landscape is also changing as reading habits and funding models evolve. As publishers struggle to keep up with the 24-7 news cycle amid shrinking revenue streams, not every journalist will have the space, time, or resources to provide lengthy discussion of scientific methods in their stories. But by leaving out key information about the research design, these stories offer few opportunities for audiences to critically engage with the research presented to them. 

“for citizens and policy makers to be able to make well-informed decisions, we have to find ways to communicate study results effectively”

Identifying how these journalistic choices might affect readers and policy makers is a task for another research study, but our findings raise important considerations about the nature of opioid news coverage — and of science news more generally: “Scientific research is one critical puzzle piece in solving many of the issues we face today,” says Lisa. “But for citizens and policy makers to be able to make well-informed decisions, we have to find ways to communicate study results effectively, without misrepresenting the science behind them.” 

“Framing science: How opioid research is presented in online news media” is a collaboration between Lisa Matthias, Alice Fleerackers, and Juan Pablo Alperin. Read the full study at Frontiers in Communication.