The Language of Addiction: New York Times Insists on Perpetuating Stigma

    The debate over journalists’ language on drug use was reignited by a recent email from New York Times standards editor Phillip B. Corbett. It defends the preference for descriptors like “addict” over “person-first” language that avoids reducing people to their drug use. 

    His email was posted on Twitter by a reader who says she reached out to Corbett after the paper’s repeated use of “addict” in an October 10 New York Times Magazine feature on an “open-air” heroin market in Philadelphia.

    Corbett, who oversees the Times style manual, responded that he recognizes the ongoing debate around words like “addict,” and that his team “weigh[s] the pros and cons of terminology favored by experts against the widely used layperson’s language.”

    By “terminology favored by experts,” Corbett is referring to “person-first” language—a widespread linguistic remedy that seeks to avoid implicit dehumanization and affirm dignity. It may be used in discussing people who have been incarcerated, people with disabilities, or people with any type of socially stigmatized condition or circumstance. By framing proponents of person-first language as a niche minority, Corbett mischaracterizes its increasing acceptance.

    The 2017 version of The Associated Style Book—the news industry standard for style and form—advises journalists to “avoid words like alcoholic, addict, user and abuser unless they are in quotations or names of organizations.” Even former ONDCP drug czar Michael Botticelli encouraged Executive Branch agencies in 2017 to use person-first language and the phrase “substance use disorder” rather than “substance abuse” or “drug habit.” Using “addict” instead of “person with an addiction,” as the New York Times does, is becoming anomalous, rather than the news-media default. 

    Corbett additionally points to language used by people with addictions themselves to justify the Times’s decision, writing that “even some people who have addictions continue to use the term [addict].” Some people on Twitter also pointed to this:

    This analysis misses that people’s chosen self-descriptors do not necessitate that broader discourse follows suit. Words help to determine how we perceive people, and maintaining reductive language supports institutions, policymakers and everyone else who conflates people who use drugs with their drug use.

    To top off Corbett’s disappointing response, he dismisses the concern as a distraction from the overall article. He concludes: “I’m disappointed if your dismay over the language clouded what seemed to me to be a remarkable and very empathetic work of journalism.” But privileging the latter over the former is a faulty assumption. After all, “the language” co-constitutes the meaning of drug use—and misunderstanding drug use, especially now, is quite literally a matter of life and death.

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