The Political Effects of Opioid Addiction Frames

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Principal investigators:

Tanika Raychaudhuri

University of Houston



Tali Mendelberg

Princeton University



Sample size: 1550

Field period: 04/07/2020-07/24/2020

Unlike media coverage of previous drug epidemics, coverage of opioid abuse focuses on Whites and is often sympathetic. Treatment policies garner widespread support. Does sympathetic coverage of Whites cause support for public health over punishment? Does sympathetic coverage of Blacks have the same effect? Prior research on frames neglects these questions, focusing on negative messages about nonwhites. In a preregistered experiment conducted through a national population-based survey of White respondents, we vary both valence and race using fully-controlled yet realistic news stories. Sympathetic frames of White and Black users both increase support for treatment, but the former has larger effects. This racially-selective sympathy is explained by racial attitudes. Unsympathetic frames have no effects, pointing to the limits of racial antipathy. The findings suggest sympathetic stories about Blacks’ stigmatized behavior can increase support for assistance over punishment, yet highlight the importance of racially-selective sympathy as a distinct concept from racial antipathy.

Valence Hypotheses:

Racialization Hypotheses:

Moderator Hypotheses:

Experimental Manipulations

To test these expectations, we conducted a between-subjects survey experiment. We sought to vary valence and race independently and estimate their separate and interactive effects. In addition, we sought to vary valence fully, from unsympathetic to sympathetic, rather than examining only one valence or the other. Finally, we aimed to create strong valence treatments, allowing us to test the impact of a ‘full dose’ of sympathy.

Respondents were randomly assigned to one of four treatments or a non-story control. In the treatments, respondents read a hypothetical news story about opioid use, varying the race of users (White or Black) and the valence of the frame (sympathetic or unsympathetic). The story draws on actual news stories and their reader commentaries, and, importantly, resembles them in length, narrative style, and the use of vivid photos. The news story begins with statistics about opioid use. Next, it presents the personal account of a fictional drug user named Mike, recounting how he began using opioids and the impact of drug use on his life. This full-length narrative format generalizes to the type of news content many people consume. It represents an advance over many studies where information is stylized, abbreviated, and lacks imagery, with stimuli too pallid to allow the full development of a frame.

We measure four post-treatment outcomes that capture different but related dimensions of responses to drug use. These include a binary measure of support for “government-funded treatment over arrest for violating drug laws”; a six-point measure of willingness to “pay extra taxes for government funded treatment programs”; a five-point measure of support for a “candidate who advocates government-funded drug treatment programs over arresting drug addicts for violating the law”; and, as a potential mechanism, eleven-point scaled measures of “emotional reactions to users” (anger, fear discuss sympathy).
Summary of Results

We find support for the sympathy and full valence hypotheses but little support for the antipathy hypothesis. As the sympathy hypothesis predicts, the sympathetic White condition increases support by statistically and substantively significant amounts, on three of the four outcomes relative to the control: treatment policies (21 points, p < 0.001), a candidate who favors treatment (8 points, p < 0.001), and sympathetic emotion (4 points, p < 0.01). Likewise, the sympathetic Black condition increases support, for all four outcomes relative to the control: treatment (13 points, p < 0.01), candidate (6 points, p < 0.01), taxes (5 points, p < 0.05), and emotions (5 points, p < 0.01). However, the antipathy hypothesis is not supported. Specifically, the unsympathetic White and Black conditions each only mildly affect emotions relative to the control (5 points, p < 0.05). As the full valence hypothesis predicts, relative to the unsympathetic White condition, the sympathetic White condition generates strong, statistically significant, support on three of the four outcomes: policy (18 points, p < 0.001), candidate (7 points, p < 0.001), and emotions (8 points, p < 0.001). In addition, relative to the unsympathetic Black condition, the sympathetic Black condition increases support for policy (8 points, p < 0.05) and emotions (8 points, p < 0.01).

Of the racialization hypotheses we only find support for racial sympathy. The anti-Black bias hypothesis is not supported, as the sympathetic story about Black users increases support for all four outcomes relative to the control, as described above. The unsympathetic White treatment has no statistically significant effects on outcomes relative to the control (except emotions, as described above) in line with Pro-White bias, but neither does the unsympathetic Black condition. As the racial sympathy hypothesis predicts, the sympathetic condition generates less support for treatment policy with Black than White users (8 points, p < 0.05). There is no evidence for the racial antipathy hypothesis: Unsympathetic coverage does not generate more antipathy with Black than White addicts. Likewise, there is limited evidence for the racial main effect hypothesis. When comparing the pooled Black and White conditions, the Black conditions decrease support for treatment policy, but this effect is somewhat uncertain (5 points, p < 0.10).

We find some support for the racial moderator hypothesis. First, we find that racial resentment moderates racial sympathy. Resentment moderates the impact of sympathetic Black versus sympathetic White coverage, on candidates and taxes (p < 0.05). This racial sympathy effect carries over to an overall racial main effect on candidate support (p < 0.05), and for taxes (p = 0.052). Racial resentment does not moderate valence effects or motivated racial effects. Second, racial stereotypes also moderate the racial frame effect, but less consistently. In line with racial sympathy, treatment policy gets less support with the sympathetic Black than White ‘face’ among the top half of the stereotype distribution (p < 0.05). Racial antipathy is also supported: unfavorable coverage also elicits less policy support with a Black than White ‘face’ among those high in racial stereotypes (p < 0.05). These two effects add up to a racial main effect on policy support from Black vs. White coverage among stereotyping Whites (p < 0.01). Racial stereotypes do not moderate other effects.

The results largely support this ideological null hypothesis, with one exception: The Black ‘face’ of sympathetic coverage negatively affects conservatives more than liberals regarding taxes (p < 0.001).


Raychaudhuri, Tanika, Tali Mendelberg, and Anne McDonough. Forthcoming. “The Political Effects of Opioid Addiction Frames.” The Journal of Politics. doi: 10.1086/720326