Date of Award

Spring 2023

Degree Type



Political Science

Director of Thesis

Dr. Joshua Meyer-Gutbrod

First Reader

Dr. Patricia Sullivan

Second Reader

Dr. Patricia Sullivan


The most recent opioid crisis in the United States was largely described, by politicians, the media, and subsequently members of the voting public, as being an issue primarily affecting rural White communities. This phenomenon is shaped by the fact that the rate at which White Americans use opiates is outpaced by the frequency with which White American use of opiates is described as an issue of human interest in opinion or editorial articles in news media. In this thesis I aim to understand how the racialized public and political perception of opiate use is shaped by local media.

The following study is divided into two sections. In the first, I synthesize existing literature and do an original survey analysis of newspaper articles to describe the development of the racial connotations of opiate use from the late 19th century to the present day. In the second, I follow the standards of political science to conduct state-level regression analyses on the correlation between actual opioid overdose death rate, frequency of opioid mentions in the opinion-editorial sections of newspapers, and salience of opioid issues in published statements from candidates for political office. I end with a discussion of my findings and the role of the current crisis in the history of public concern over opiate use and mention some avenues for further research using the data collected for this project.

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© 2023, Rachael M Erickson