The Opioid Debate

It’s Only a Crisis if it is Fit to Print: Examining the Relationship Between Overdose Rates, News Coverage, and the Salience of the Opioid Crisis in State Legislative Campaigns

Authors: Rachael Erickson, Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod (
Winner of the 2022-2023 University Libraries Undergraduate Research Awards!

The modern opioid epidemic has been an increasingly prominent issue within the national media, culminating in significant attention during the 2020 presidential election, and transforming the issue into a major talking point for candidates across the ballot. However, mirroring disparate reform efforts in state legislatures, campaign attention to the crisis has not been uniform across states. This manuscript explores the driving factors in this disparity, exploring how public perception of the opioid crisis is shaped by not just its associated deaths but also coverage of the issue in local media. To accomplish this, we employ two new datasets that compare mentions of opioid policy in state legislative campaigns with mentions in state-level news coverage and actual recorded overdose rates in the state. We conduct both state-level regression analyses examining the correlation between actual opioid overdose death rates and the frequency of opioid mentions in newspapers and candidate-level analysis of opioid salience relative to these two factors. We find that, in the absence of controlling for news coverage, opioid death rates remain a prominent predictor of candidate attention. However, when controlling for news coverage, the impact of actual death rates on the models is diminished, revealing the importance of media coverage in explaining candidate response to the crisis. These results contribute to our understanding of opioid reform at the state level, and speak to the importance of news media for raising awareness about even highly salient issues in public health and beyond.