An open letter to the CBC Ombudsperson regarding the use of stigmatizing images

Ms. E. Enkin, Ombudsman, Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, P.O. Box 500, Station A, Toronto, Ontario

April 5th, 2018

Dear Ms. Enkin,

We are writing this letter to draw attention to a serious concern we have regarding the use of misleading imagery in CBC articles presenting issues around the epidemic of substance related overdose. The organization we represent is called “Moms Stop the Harm”. We are a national network of mothers from across Canada who have lost loved ones to substance misuse or whose loved one is hoping for recovery. Our organization’s primary objective is to save lives. Our efforts to do this are founded in the principles of harm reduction and opportunities that are served under that umbrella.

From one end of this country to the other we are seeing our membership grow every day. More notably, it is apparent that the demographic assigned to overdose has changed and with that it is paramount we change our paradigms, especially those that serve to stigmatize the picture of substance abuse. The demographic we are referencing here are younger people who are using and dying alone. They are dying at home in upscale communities, dying on the sofas at teenage house parties, or even safely parked in the driveway in the family car.

The CBC has taken to repeatedly using the image of a green pill, a discarded needle and/or pictures of homeless people. They certainly have shock value and with that will capture the viewers’ attention. However, these photos could quite easily mislead the community into thinking that the deaths are confined to a specific user group.

Your organization has a vast following and coast to coast influence. It would be fair to suggest that your reporters are aware of the truth behind that which they report. With that awareness must come an understanding that the demographic of people dying by overdose statistically is vast and not limited to drug users who injects their substance(s). Many more are dying by alternative methods of consumption. Tainted illicit drugs like cocaine and methamphetamine are taking the lives of far too many. Research has shown that 80% of all street drugs are contaminated with deadly fentanyl.

Journalists have a responsibility to share the truth and educate the public. When they fail to show the broader representation, as is the case with the current imagery, it can feed the stereotypical story that too many believe. The story that tells us that only street involved people are dying during the overdose crisis. The public are in fact almost assured by virtue of a single method of consumption represented, that they are safe. Most don’t want to believe that their loved one could die by overdose let alone use illicit drugs that put them at risk. The truth is they can die, statistically they are dying and green pills and needles represent only a portion of users.

The statement below was taken from your own Journalistic Standards and Practices. It outlines a clear commitment to fairly representing the vulnerable in your media efforts.

We are aware of our influence on how minorities or vulnerable groups are perceived… We avoid generalizations, stereotypes, and any degrading or offensive words or images that could feed prejudice or expose people to hatred or contempt… When a minority group is referred to, the vocabulary is chosen with care and with consideration for changes in the language.

Deadly drugs are evolving and with them, so too should the imaging that serves to represent the substance user. We would like to add some suggestions of images that are more aligned with the actual deaths or using habits of our members loved ones.

  • cocaine on a neatly organized office desk
  • a young man on a sofa at a house party, head bowed seemingly sleeping
  • a small bag of powder next to a teenager’s text book

In addition, pictures that tell stories of effort:

  • images of people with lived or living experience from all a variety of backgrounds (including those who have died)
  • photos of professionals providing treatment or harm reduction supports
  • treatment or harm reduction supplies

We need greater communication about the opioid crisis across this country if we want to save lives. As a national news agency, you not only have an opportunity but more importantly a responsibility to the public. Generalizations such as images of people using and dying while out in public only feed the judgements placed on the marginalized and such images fail to represent the truth.


Marie Agioritis, leadership Saskatchewan – on behalf of our Canadian team.

Moms Stop the Harm