How the media mishandles meth

Is this teaching me how to make things better, or is this making me more afraid – and who benefits from me being afraid? Who is this fear-based narrative serving, and why is this being presented in lieu of something that will empower me to make things better in my community?

These are the questions Anlina Sheng hopes audiences ask themselves after attending Meth in the media, a panel on the media coverage of meth in Winnipeg held on Feb. 12 at the X-Cues’ Cafe and Lounge.

Sheng will be one of the panelists, along with representatives from 13 Moons Harm Reduction, CBC, the Winnipeg Free Press and the University of Winnipeg.

Sheng is the southern networks manager for Manitoba Harm Reduction Network (MHRN), an organization that helps manage smaller harm-reduction networks and peer advisory councils. The media narratives about meth in Winnipeg have fed into Sheng’s work in unhelpful ways and have been “challenging” to deal with.

“The current media narrative around meth is very heavy on fear and very light on facts. There is a large conflation in the media of people who use meth with psychosis, with violence, with crime and very little information for the community about how people can be supported or what the causes of problematic substance use are,” they say.

“I think in Winnipeg in particular, we’re seeing a lot of both explicit and implicit blaming of all crime on people who use meth and blaming all people who use meth as being violent or criminals, which does not reflect the reality of what’s going on. We are really failing to talk about why people use meth.”

One media practice Sheng sees playing into these narratives is a failure of journalists to treat drug users as experts on their own experience.

“The media narrative has really failed to include the voices of people who use meth,” they say. “We see lots of media coverage talking to healthcare providers or the police or concerned community members, but the voices of people who use drugs are quite absent.”

“I think they would get a very different narrative if they did (centre drug users’ experiences), and really we should always be centring the voices of people who use drugs when we’re talking about problems and harms around substance use.”

Media narratives on meth have also tended to ignore systemic causes of meth use in favour of focusing on individual use.

“I think particularly in a climate of austerity where services are being cut, using meth makes sense for a lot of people,” Sheng says. “It’s really inexpensive, it’s really accessible.”

“We have a real housing crisis in Manitoba and a lack of appropriate and accessible shelters for people, and it has been really cold. Meth can be a really effective survival tool for keeping yourself alive in winter so that you don't freeze to death, so that you don’t get assaulted or robbed, so I think that, particularly in our context here, understanding that there are benefits to using meth, and then addressing those factors is quite important.”

But the context goes beyond climate. “Winnipeg is talking a lot about being in a meth crisis, but it’s really not a meth crisis. It’s a crisis of colonization. It’s a crisis of austerity, of cuts to essential services, of lack of housing,” they say. “But meth is a convenient scapegoat for all these problems, because then we can blame it on the drug or the users of the drug instead of addressing the root causes.”

Sheng also says these storylines proliferate because fear narratives are profitable for news agencies, provide justification for increasing police budgets and potentially serve arguments for abstinence-based services, which Sheng says may have a place in a larger program context, but need to be chosen by drug users, not forced upon them.

“There are a lot of institutions that benefit from fear-based narratives, but it’s not our community, and it’s not people who use drugs.”

Sheng is hoping that the Meth in the media panel will get journalists to think more critically “about the harms that they are exacerbating or creating through the way that they are portraying what’s happening.”

“I would really like the media to be accountable to the communities they are reporting in and not do more harm in their reporting.”

They say that while “clickbaity” journalism might bring in views and readers, “the media has a huge influence on how people and communities perceive things, and moral panics might be good for business, but they’re bad for communities.”

“When we talk to people who do use drugs in our communities, we get a picture that is more grounded in reality and that better understands the context of what is happening and why it is happening. We have more conversations about the systems that create issues and what needs to change in those systems.

“Lots of coverage of people who use drugs and of substance use is very focused on individual behaviour and the harms without really taking into account the context, and really, the majority of harms around substance use come from the environment and the systems that exist.”

Meth in the media: a panel discussion will begin at 6:30 p.m. on Wednesday, Feb. 12 at X-Cues’ Cafe and Lounge (551 Sargent Ave.). Anlina Sheng (MHRN), Jenna Wirch (13 Moons), Melissa Martin (Winnipeg Free Press), Lenard Monkman (CBC), Kim Kaschor (CBC) and Bailey Gerrits (University of Winnipeg) will speak as panelists. The panel will be moderated by U of W assistant professors Bronwyn Dobchuk-Land and Katharina Maier.

Published in Volume 74, Number 17 of The Uniter (February 6, 2020)

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