Alcoholism & Drug Abuse Weekly - From the Field
March 11, 2002

Television plays key role in shaping attitudes about addiction

By Elvin Montero

Grassroots movements around the country are gaining momentum in reducing the stigma of alcoholism and drug addiction by putting a face on recovery. People in recovery are witness to the fact that treatment works. But does this progress suffer if the media represent alcoholics and those in recovery in ways that reinforce old, ill-informed stereotypes?

For years, the entertainment industry has been under scrutiny about its portrayals of alcohol and drug use. Concerned scholars, supported by research that linked media messages with underage abuse of alcohol, led the charge. According to various studies, alcohol always seems to be shown in an appealing context. Such portrayals often glamorize alcohol use, and younger viewers seem to associate positive values with alcohol. For such an impressionable audience, this glamorization and level of influence can have negative consequences. They begin to think that drinking is "cool" and therefore feel the pressure to drink. We know from research done by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) that a person who begins drinking at a young age has a greater chance of developing a clinically defined alcohol disorder.

In recent years, however, television has taken a fresh approach to its portrayal of addictive disease. The television industry, in fact the entertainment industry as a whole, is starting to re-examine its civic responsibility and how its creative work can help reduce what Alan I. Leshner, Ph.D., former director of the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), called the "great disconnect" - the large gap between the public's perception of drug abuse and addiction and the scientific facts.

Portraying alcohol use and addiction on television in a more realistic manner need not compromise a show's creativity. The Entertainment Industries Council has found that such protrayals often make a program more powerful. Through teh council's First Draft program, scriptwriters receive help with the development and accuracy of the portrayal of social issues, including alcoholism and drug use.

The Entertainment Industries Council, in conjunction with the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, has begun honoring such shows as ER, NYPD Blue, and The West Wing, which offer accurate depictions of alcoholism and addiction. These programs receive recognition through the PRISM Awards, established to celebrate "the art of making a difference."

An example of television's new realism can be found in the West Wing character Leo McGarry, the president's chief of staff. West Wing received the 2000 R. Brinkley Smithers Award for "outstanding contributions to the field of alcoholism, providing a better understanding of alcoholism as a treatable disease from which people can and do recover." McGarry is portrayed by actor John Spencer, himself a recovering alcoholic. In one recent episode, the character, when questioned about his alcoholism, responds, "I don't understand people who have one drink. I don't understand people who leave half a glass of wine on the table. I don;t understand people who say they've had enough. How can you have enough of feeling like this? How can you not want to feel like this longer. My brain works differently."

The entertainment industry's efforts to portray the disease of alcoholism and drug addiction more realistically have had benefits in both the recovering community and in the general public's perception of addiction. A 1999 research study by the Hazelden Foundation found that the majority of Americans (79%) accept alcoholism as a disease, but still found negative opinions persisting about the recovering alcoholic or addict. Given the influence television has in shaping attitudes, the recent changes by industry could help lead society to reconsider the issue. Keeping television's reach in mind, prevention and treatment organizations need to make the best possible use of these programs.

Television can serve as a vehicle for bringing problems and social concerns into the public forum and highlighting the consequences of such issues. Can exposure to realistic portrayals translate into actual social change? It is one thing to present the horrors of addiction. Providing viewers with the knowledge of how they or their loved ones can escape addiction presents television with its next challenge.

Elvin Montero is a communications specialist with the National Council on Alcohol and Drug Dependence - New Jersey (NCADD-NJ). This column fist appeared in the NCADD-NJ publication, Perspectives.