From “Junkies” to “Soccer Moms”: Newspaper Representations of Overdose, 1988–2014

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In the United States, opioid-related mortality has tripled since 2000, leading the Centers for Disease Control to declare a national overdose epidemic in 2016. With overdose an increasing area of mainstream political and popular concern, some commentators have suggested that sympathetic attention has followed changes in the profile of opioid users, as rates of heroin initiation have doubled among white Americans and women. Yet no studies have examined how media framings of overdose have shifted alongside the epidemic’s demographic contours. Focusing upon southwestern Pennsylvania, this study uses qualitative analysis of news items surrounding three surges in heroin overdose deaths in 1988, 2006, and 2014. 178 items reporting on such overdose outbreaks were selected for thematic coding, with attention directed toward opioid user representations, “drug problem” characterizations, and suggested solutions. Results reveal a transformation in the depiction of overdose sufferers over time, with stories increasingly centered around “unexpected” opioid users, whose habits are made legible through biomedical discourses of addiction; such portraits are used to argue the impropriety of punitive responses to drug misuse. At the same time, the role of criminal justice institutions in addressing overdose is not dismissed, but relocated in recent coverage, with the intensified prosecution of drug dealers offered by many.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)411-432
Number of pages22
JournalCritical Criminology
Issue number3
StatePublished - Sep 1 2017

All Science Journal Classification (ASJC) codes

  • Sociology and Political Science
  • Law


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