Vincent Safuto’s Weblog

Notes and observations

Drug addiction narratives follow the same old formula

If there’s one thing I cannot stand, it’s formula journalism.

This is the process of writing a story that follows a form given in a journalism textbook. It’s pretty easy to follow and easy to carry out, but it creates the dullest news stories ever.

Usually, there are three sources in such a formulaic story, and the sources are introduced with titles such as “assistant director for cat husbandry at the National Cat Foundation, a nonprofit organization based out of Norwalk, Conn., dedicated to helping families breed cats and raise them to adulthood without getting them diseased …”

And then the person is quoted, usually at length, about how he or she is excited about some aspect of whatever they’re doing.

Add two more sources from the foundation, a local person who’s also “very excited” and you have a news story for your local newspaper or website. Some reporters have been running this scam forever.

The trouble is that when you work on the copy desk of a newspaper, you see these stories until your eyes glaze over. No one tries to stand out and develop a personal style; the belief is that you just have to follow the pattern if you want to succeed in this news business today.

Well, when it comes to drug addiction and recovery (or not recovery) narratives, there are a few formats that are followed relentlessly, even by the better newspapers and media outlets.

The addict is described as having been a good, hardworking person who “fell in with the wrong crowd” (even in adulthood!) or had some sort of setback or injury that required medication.

Soon, he or she is addicted to the medication or something illegal and is not showing up for work, stealing from friends and family to sell stuff to support the habit, eventually gets fired from work, tries to get into rehab, gets into rehab, relapses (repeat the last three items at least five times), gets arrested for the crime or the drugs or both, is now determined to get rehabbed, fights to avoid jail time, bullshits a judge, gets rehab, relapses, gets rehab again, relapses again, gets rehab yet again, gets religion and finally appears to be rehabbed.

Next up is the meeting with the love of his or her life in the rehab meetings, followed by the rehab marriage and the eventual rehab child.

No kidding. Read most stories about someone addicted to something, and you see the above pattern. Even more frustrating, this person then gets into the very profitable industry of … drug or alcohol rehabilitation, and is working to become a counselor.

We eventually are told by a relative that the former addict is the most wonderful, hardest working, best spouse and best parent in the whole wide world.

Now, compare this with the way the typical worker is described, especially a government worker (except for police, fire or the military). Invariably, they are described as stupid, lazy, dumb, a parasite on the community who only take, don’t give. Their efforts at economic advancement are a threat to the economic stability of the community, and they must be driven into the dirt, hard, and made to pay for their sin of working for the government and taking from the noble taxpayer.

Oddly, the pattern here often is that the government worker has no work ethic, while the graduate of drug rehab has a spectacular work ethic and never missed a meeting, so the rehab graduate is a great person who is superior in every way to the person who has gone to work every day and never missed a day of work or left work for someone else to do.

If I sound frustrated, it’s because I have always lived a “no excuses” life, at least, since I was 17 and in the Marines. I learned quickly at Parris Island that “excuses are like assholes. Everyone’s got one, and they all stink.” I’ve lived with the ethos of not trying to excuse my mistakes but to learn from them.

In the process, I realized that “self-medicating” – as drug addicts are fond of describing their binges – is simply not a good idea. Realizing that I have a lot of responsibilities, though for my whole life I’ve been single with no kids, I have had to be on time everywhere and be ready to meet the demands of my job.

Reading about how someone else has screwed up his or her life only leaves me pitying those who had to compensate for that person’s lack of responsibility. The way that such narratives end with marriage and children leaves me frustrated. While I’m working nights and weekends to keep a roof over my head and the bills paid, they’ve been partying and having a good time.

It’s time to break the addiction narrative in journalism. I guess that’s my message today.

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November 16, 2011 - Posted by | Life lessons, Living in the modern age, The news business | , , , , , , ,

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