Opinion: How We Write About Problem Gambling Matters

As journalists and editors, the language we use to tell the stories we share matters. For those who write about the gambling industry, it’s time we interrogate how our words may impart more meaning and harm than intended.

At least, that was my takeaway after attending How We Speak Matters: Undoing Stigmatizing Language, the 2024 Ohio Problem Gambling Conference’s preconference opening session.

Presented by Andrew Schreier, Thursday’s talk focused on eliminating destigmatizing language in clinical services, with a focus, in this case, on providers assisting those experiencing gambling harms. Much of what was shared is applicable beyond the clinical setting, particularly, in my opinion, journalists who cover gambling and gambling harms.

Language, said Schreier, director of clinical services at Community Medical Services for Wisconsin & Minnesota, is a primary tool for communication.

Not only does it allow us to express ourselves, it permits our understanding of others, he said.

Language empowers individuals by providing them with the ability to advocate for themselves [and] express their right to engage in civic participation. As someone who is a big believer in harm reduction, that is a huge piece of empowering individuals.

However, wielded thoughtlessly, language can stigmatize, stripping away power and validating harmful stereotypes. For those dealing with problem gambling, that stigma can have dire consequences.

For his part, Schreier prompted his audience to think about how language affects the people they serve.

Following that lead, I ask my fellow journalists: How do the words we choose impact those we cover?

Stigma Can Keep Gamblers In Need From Help

Stigma, noted Schreier, involves mainstream prejudice or discrimination that could negatively impact individuals, in this case, those experiencing gambling disorder. When gambling stigma materializes, it’s often through negative stereotypes, increased social distancing, status loss, and outright discrimination.

Gambling disorder, Schreier added, is more stigmatized than obsessive-compulsive disorder or depression. In studies, respondents reported more negative gambling stereotypes, a greater need to distance socially, and devaluation of those experiencing gambling problems.

For those at risk of, or experiencing, gambling harm, that stigma can make it harder to get help.

Research, said Schreier, shows two main barriers to those seeking help:

  • A desire to handle the problem independently
  • Shame and fear of stigma

As a result of that shame and fear, people may avoid seeking treatment for problem gambling or gambling use disorder. Or they may leave treatment early. This avoidance can mean other substance use, mental health, or medical issues also remain unaddressed.

Additionally, prevailing social stigmas may contribute to a lack of funding for gambling disorder prevention, research, and treatment.

According to a  GambleAware-backed scoping review and textual analysis published in 2022, a “significant amount” of published gambling research used “stigmatizing language and portrayals” to describe people dealing with gambling harms. Gamble Aware is the leading independent problem gambling organization in the UK,

Specifically, the analysis found labeling and stereotyping were common among the reviewed studies, as was connecting gambling with other stigmatized conditions and behaviors.

From the review:

We found extensive use of stigmatising terms like ‘problem gambler’ and ‘gambling addict’ which can reflect/feed into narratives that construct people who experience gambling harms as being a ‘problem,’ rather than ‘having’ a problem/illness.

The use of such terms or narratives in research, public health campaigns, and on the websites of non-governmental organisations (NGOs) that provide services to mitigate gambling harms, unwittingly places blame directly on the individual.

Words Have Power: Weild Wisely

If using stigmatizing narratives in research, campaigns, and communication “unwittingly” places blame, surely using those same terms in our reporting only enforces that criticism.

I’d even argue that journalists’ choices may carry even greater weight. Our audience is more likely to be the general public than the readers of a typical academic study. Therefore, how we talk about gambling and, more importantly, problem gambling will likely color public understanding.

If careless or unaware, those choices could reinforce existing stigma and add to the harm people face. However, when used intentionally, our words could help reframe and destigmatize the conversation.

As Schreier also noted, we can’t talk about gambling without mentioning suicide, and addressing suicide is impossible without discussing shame.

Stigmatizing language, he reminded, drives shame, and together, shame and stigma can kill. According to the Nevada Council on Problem Gambling (NCPG), up to half of people in treatment for gambling disorder have considered suicide. Of the same group, approximately 17% made an attempt.

As a writer on the gambling beat, I believe problem gambling is the most important topic I cover. The last thing I want to do is spread further stigma with that reporting. But how can journalists ensure our words don’t further stigmatize the people and issues we cover?

We Can Do Better

Unfortunately, there’s no one-stop-shop for journalistic best practices when writing about problem gambling in the US.

In 2017, AP Stylebook, which dictates standards for American reporting, revised its guidelines to address addiction as a disease, not a weakness or moral failing. While they’re a step in the right direction, those guidelines are now seven years old, and terminology has continued to change, particularly among frontline treatment providers.

However, last year, GambleAware published Media guidelines for reporting on gambling and gambling harms.

The guide included eight considerations and resources to support the “highest standard” of reporting on gambling harms. Thankfully, these standards apply just as well across the pond.

GambleAware’s Media Guidelines:

  • Report on gambling using first-person language. ‘Person-first’ language shows an individual is more than just their gambling problem. (ie. A person experiencing gambling harms vs. gambling addict)
  • Avoid sensationalizing or glorifying gambling stories
  • Avoid using triggering imagery or associating people who gamble with other stigmatized behaviors
  • Approach gambling harms as a public health concern
  • Avoid language that blames the person affected
  • Give a voice to those with lived experience
  • Raise awareness of the risks and early warning signs of problem gambling
  • Highlight the importance of seeking support and share what support is available

Lastly, it’s essential to be open to critique and correction. During his talk, Schreier noted instances when Community Medical Services asked reporters who used out-of-date terminology for corrections. Unfortunately, he also said media outlets are not always keen to make those revisions.

We can do better.

If you’re worried about how gambling makes you feel, you can find free, confidential advice, tools, and support by contacting the National Problem Gambling Helpline, available 24/7 at 1-800-GAMBLER.

About the Author

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil

Robyn McNeil is a Nova Scotia-based writer and editor. She lives in Halifax in an empty nest with a mischievous cat and a penchant for good stories, strong tea, cheeseburgers, yoga, graveyards, hammocks, gardening, games, herb, adventure, and hoppy beer.
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