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Little by little

1 May 2013
Keri Welham
This article was published 11 years ago. Content may no longer be relevant.

Sex addicts are comic gold, coffee addicts are the epitome of urban cool, but drug addicts? Media coverage always needs two sides, so when the issue is addiction to alcohol or illicit substances, the tone is generally disapproving. But are there instances when society would accept the media taking a sympathetic stance of that which is outlawed? Is it time for a more understanding approach to the illness of addiction? Keri Welham reports.

Lindsay Lohan’s sunken red eyes, limp hair and pout are the stuff of tabloid legend. Since the starlet’s teen flick Mean Girls in 2004, she has become better known for her court appearances than her movie credits.

The 1 April edition of the New Zealand Women’s Weekly chronicles her latest court appearance – this time for reckless driving and lying to Police – and the sentence of 90 days in a rehabilitation facility, 30 days community service and 18 months of psychotherapy. A strip of mugshots down the right-hand side of the page shows the physical deterioration of the one-time model. It is headlined SHOTS OF SHAME.

This glossy mag coverage of an offshore celebrity’s tumultuous life is in stark contrast to the recent coverage of All Black Zac Guildford’s revelations regarding alcoholism.

Guildford’s alcohol-fuelled misdemeanours – including storming into a Cook Islands’ bar, naked and drunk, and punching two men – had secured him his fair share of robust media coverage in the last 18 months. But in late March, when Guildford publicly acknowledged his battle with alcohol, the New Zealand Rugby Union and the national media showed a level of understanding uncommon in issues around addiction. The rugby union offered enlightened comments about its expertise and experience with healing broken bones and how this contrasted with its lack of knowledge around mental illness.

Perhaps this response came down to the fact Guildford’s drug of choice is legal or to the fact the young sportsman named his demon so journalists faced no sense of ambiguity when preparing their reports. Or maybe the Guildford story will come to be seen as a watershed moment when the New Zealand media started to bring the same level of understanding extended to mental illness and disability to the issue of addiction.

Across a variety of sources, it is apparent there are three key barriers to sensitive reporting on drug issues. They are:

  • the media’s core role (to reflect society, rather than promote change)
  • the necessity to deal in facts (whichmeans if someone does not consider themselves an ‘addict’, or has not been labelled one by an expert, a journalist should not assume or suggest they are one)
  • the rule of law (if a drug of choice is illicit, the media will reflect society’s disapproval).

But research shows the stigma of addiction is stifling for anyone who is attempting to start recovery, so is there any wriggle room within these journalistic codes?

The introduction to the UK Drug Policy Commission (UKDPC) publication Dealing with the stigma of drugs: a guide for journalists acknowledges the potentially positive role the news media could play in recovery.

“Although vast quantities of newsprint and airtime are devoted to reporting on and discussing the impact of drugs in the UK, one aspect of the subject is rarely covered. That is the stigma attached to drug users – particularly those who have recovered or are recovering from addiction – and the effect that has on them, their families and society. Yet the media can play an important role in increasing public understanding about the nature of the condition and ways to overcome it.”

A foreword, written by former Mirror Group political editor David Seymour, says stigma is a significant obstacle for the person trying to get into or stay in recovery. Seymour is the editor of the stigma guide, which was published in the second half of 2012.

“The media can play a critical role in overcoming (the stigma of drug addiction), as it has done in surmounting the stigma which surrounded other groups in society.”

The publication offers examples of language and phrases that can be used to help nudge social change along. It says that, just as society has come to accept that an understanding attitude to people who are disabled or mentally ill helps them have a normal life, people with problematic drug use also benefit from understanding attitudes – although there may be the stumbling block of their criminality.

The media has become an increasingly important influence on public understanding of mental illness and disability. It has not been a swift process, and focused by sales or viewers, the media never runs too far ahead of public opinion.

“The art of subtly turning around attitudes is to be just far enough in front to allow readers, viewers and listeners to connect between their existing views and something more informed or enlightened,” the publication says.

It suggests substituting terms such as ‘junkie’, ‘crackhead’, ‘smackhead’ or ‘pothead’ with ‘dependent drug user’ or ‘service user’. Instead of the once-common ‘drug shame’ headline, it suggests ‘drug tragedy’.

But how relevant and practical are these suggestions? And what appetite is there for a change in media reporting on drug issues in New Zealand?

Journalism tutor, media ethics expert and former New Zealand Press Council member Alan Samson says those who wish the media to paint a more positive view of society fail to understand the media’s role.

Its purpose is to reflect society: to keep the community abreast of important developments and issues relevant to their lives. American dramatist Arthur Miller said a good newspaper is a nation talking to itself. It would follow that, if drug use is occurring in a community, it is beholden on the media to reflect that in a fair, accurate and balanced way.

Samson says journalists are trained and expected to be respectful and aware of the consequences of their actions. “Most journalists, I think, are very aware of not hurting people without good reason.”

But it should not be up to those individual journalists to decide to censor comments that they might personally deem stupid or simplistic if they are made by those in positions of relevant authority, knowledge or proximity to the issue.

Samson is wary of guidelines around language or what is reported if those rules involve holding back relevant information or quotes from knowledgeable sources. This would set a dangerous precedent of censorship under the guise of community good.

While the Australian Press Council guidelines suggest restricting details about methods of drug use (“avoid detailed accounts of consumption methods, even though many young people are generally familiar with them”), the New Zealand Chief Coroner’s recommendations for reporting on volatile substances (based on Australia’s 1985 Senate Select Committee on Volatile Fumes) took it one step further by suggesting products not be named.

Samson says this approach is “correct to a point”. He acknowledges the possibility of copycat drug-taking if information about methods of drug use is in-depth. But he questions how society is adequately and accurately informed of trends and potentially harmful practices without media reporting.

He doesn’t believe media coverage of drug issues in New Zealand is either sensationalist or discriminatory. He says it is reasonable to describe someone as a “former addict” if this is relevant to the story. In the example of someone flashing laser lights into a pilot’s eyes – an example highlighted in the UKDPC’s stigma publication – it is relevant because it illustrates a recurrence of poor judgement.

“How sensible had that person become with their life? It needs to be asked.”

Samson says he believes reporting on celebrity drug use is often critical in tone, and “rightly critical”. Similarly, he says the extensive coverage of drug-related crime in many a morning newspaper is also a straight reflection of crime in the community.

He says it’s easy, and frustratingly common, to charge the media with sensationalism. He argues writing in a bright and interesting manner is not sensationalist, per se, although this is what is often labelled sensationalism by the media’s critics.

“To be sensationalist, it had to be whipped up to such a [degree] it’s not accurate anymore.”

Last year, the New Zealand Chief Coroner’s Office issued a collection of recommendations for media reporting on deaths caused by intentional inhalation of volatile household substances. It began with an explanation: “Volatile substance abuse (or VSA) is the intentional use of aerosols, solvents and gases for deliberate intoxication.” At 31 August 2012, there were 63 recorded cases of deaths relating to the recreational use of butane-based substances since 2000. Of those, 55 were under 24 years old; 24 were under 17 years old.

The Chief Coroner’s Office released the report as a summary of all recommendations made early in 2012 in relation to a spate of huffing deaths.

It read: “The reporting of all volatile substance abuse is recognised as being of a highly sensitive nature. Reporting has the potential to assist in the reduction of abuse, or conversely increase the incidence by promoting use and the availability of products that may be used.”

The report referenced four considerations based on those expressed by the 1985 Volatile Fumes Select Committee in Australia and suggested they may prove a useful guide:

  • The products subject to abuse should not be named, and the methods used should not be described or depicted.
  • Reports of inhalant abuse should be factual and not sensationalised or glamorised.
  • The causes of volatile substance abuse are complex and varied. Reporting on deaths should not be superficial.
  • Stories should include local contact details for further information or support.

Mark Stevens is editor of New Zealand’s most widely read news website stuff.co.nz. He honed his craft as a Police reporter and newsroom executive with the capital’s daily newspapers. He says the question of media responsibility in covering drug issues is “redundant”.

“We cover that, along with other social issues, more than responsibly.”

He cites the extensive coverage given to the deaths of teenage solvent users Poihaere Eru and Darius Claxton in 2012.

Stevens says Stuff’s substantial coverage of the spate of huffing deaths included a Police appeal, the chief coroner’s report, commentary from the National Addiction Centre, ESR reports and coronial recommendations. In preparation to be interviewed by Matters of Substance, Stevens reviewed the dozens of stories his site ran on huffing.

“It’s broad coverage. Every one of the stories I looked at on that particular [issue] very clearly covered the dangers.”

As far as he can remember, Stuff’s readers – who, in line with online community norms, are notoriously quick to turn on news media when they don’t like the way a story has been handled – did not offer any feedback about the coverage; not a word about the intense focus on the issue or the tone of the reporting. The stories were filed by reporters working across the Fairfax Media group.

“That responsible reporting was done just because that’s what we do.

“I genuinely don’t [recall] in recent memory there being a run of irresponsible reporting about drugs in New Zealand.”

He acknowledges the huffing stories did not have a fact box with contact details for support services, and he says it’s probably time for the media to consider such devices.

But he won’t abide guidelines or extensive lists of preferred terms when he says the reporting is already responsible.

Stevens says the strict guidelines for reporting on suicide, which are followed to varying degrees by different media companies and editors, and the aspects of the Coroner’s Act that prevent publication of many suicide details have not proven helpful in combating the incidence of suicide in New Zealand.

The suicide rate remains above 500 a year (the Coronial Services Unit recorded 547 suicides in the 2011/2012 year). That’s more than a third higher than the annual road toll (308 deaths in 2012) but much lower profile. Stevens says there is an “obvious disconnect” between saving the lives of those at risk of self-harm and the current strategy of restricting media coverage of suicide.

Similarly, he says overseas guidelines for media reporting on drugs, which include not mentioning the particular drugs by name, are “absurd”.

“It’s not a crime [issue] or a health issue,” Stevens says of drug use. “It’s a social issue, and – yes – it’s a crime too. [We] shouldn’t pussyfoot around it.”

As a senior Wellington news executive, Bernadette Courtney has presided over coverage of horrific crimes committed by people on methamphetamine [known in New Zealand as P], such as the murder of Featherston schoolgirl Coral Burrows.

“Unfortunately, when the media do stories that [mention] P, they do tend to involve horrific crime,” the editor of The Dominion Post says.

“P is just another scourge.”

Courtney accepts the media has a role to play in leading by example; riding the crest of changing societal views. In recent decades, the news media has educated New Zealanders – by example – to drop the ‘s’ from the plural of Maori and to transition from use of the term ‘disabled’ to ‘people with disabilities’. It has been in step with shifts in societal attitudes regarding homosexuality, racism, religion and mental health and has taken up the challenge to avoid glamorisation of anyone who has committed suicide lest others be wrongly inspired to follow suit.

“The New Zealand media is reasonably aware in terms of covering those minority groups or groups of people with issues,” Courtney says. “We do try and stay one step ahead. The Ministry of Health here is quite proactive around education.”

Every day, a newsroom takes the pulse of the changing world. It considers which issues are most relevant and which are fading in significance. It pitches its product at its ‘average’ reader, viewer or listener, so an effective news executive has a good grasp of the population’s news appetite.

“New Zealand’s still got some real rednecks,” Courtney says. “There’ll always be people that will never sway, [that] are uneducated and will not change their viewpoint. [But] we are very liberal, aren’t we, New Zealand? I don’t think [New Zealanders] like putting labels on people.”

Increasingly, Courtney says, her readers want uplifting, feel-good stories. The ‘doom and gloom’, including drug crime, is pushed further back in the paper. She says she’s guilty of big, screaming “Drug Shame” headlines, but her reporting and feature writing teams also produce thoughtful, in-depth coverage of issues such as drug dependence, teenage solvent use and the availability of social services.

Courtney says stereotyping around drug-related issues – particularly the framing of drug use as a predominantly criminal issue more than a health issue – could be the next societal convention to be challenged.

Already, changes are evident. Last summer, one of The Dominion Post’s senior executives wrote a personal essay on drugs. It concerned a youthful brush with the law while carrying cannabis in South Africa and the author’s refusal to touch the drug again. Such a public admission involving drugs was rare of a named member of the mainstream news media. Courtney asked the author to tone it down, to ensure it couldn’t be construed as condoning drug use, then ran the story on the grounds it was a well written and personal story of redemption.

Even modest examples like this illustrate the taboo of admitting to drug use is lifting; a king hit to the stigma that, studies show, can hold drug users back from seeking help.

“Little by little, by stealth, it has changed,” Courtney says.

The United States Department of Health and Human Services produced a report in 2008 called The role of the media in promoting and reducing tobacco use.

While the report concentrates on tobacco and refers to the media in its widest sense (including billion-dollar advertising and marketing budgets deployed to actively encourage smoking), it makes pertinent points about the media’s sway over general opinion and behaviour.

“As mass communications have bridged societies around the world, they have also magnified the impact of media on global public health.”

In other words, the media wields immense power, and with power comes the responsibility to act with good intentions. The high-level report includes examples of the many ways in which the media’s reach is felt.

“Media can have short-term effects such as the impact of a short burst of advertising on consumer attitudes and behaviours – for example, on sales of cigarettes – and long-term effects that are stable and sustained, such as on social norms and values,” the report says.

“Media influence may be at the micro level, such as on individual cognitions, affect, and behaviour, or at the macro level, influencing social policies, social movements, and social actors.”

The US National Cancer Institute says the influence of the media, and its role in product marketing, represents one of the key developments of modern society.

It says the media has a powerful role in influencing individuals and policy makers and has made “critical contributions” to the cause of tobacco control. A report on media influence in tobacco control concludes media communications, including news coverage, play a key role in shaping tobacco-related knowledge, opinions, attitudes and behaviours among individuals and within communities.

This lays the foundation for parallel expectations with illicit drug use. As always, the complicating factor is the criminality in illicit drug use.

However, one report suggests the media is not as potent as believed and argues there are limitations to media responsibility. A 2011 report called Young people, alcohol and the media was produced by social change organisation the Joseph Rowntree Foundation following interviews with young people.

It said young people were actually sophisticated consumers of mass media and were more influenced by family and peer views than media coverage.

Many young people had good insights into how the media represented alcohol. They rejected simplistic messages and understood that celebrity behaviour, including drinking, was largely constructed by editors and publicists to ‘tell a story’ and sell products. Parents’ and friends’ attitudes and behaviours were better predictors of young people’s alcohol use.

Sometimes, even the best of intentions aren’t enough. Consumers can reward ambitious editors by supporting news products that offer a progressive stance, but barriers to sophisticated coverage of drugs, drug harm and the drug trade will remain. The most obvious is a basic lack of information. While some journalists will have first-hand experience of some aspect of the drug trade, they would likely not personalise their stories with such information. In fact, it is one of the core codes of journalism that a reporter comes to each story with an open mind and tries as hard as possible not to be clouded by their own views or experiences.

An experience void can be further exacerbated by conflicting views from sources. In a February 2013 example, The New Zealand Herald ran a multisourced article on methamphetamine. The article was built around a 2012 report that said the market for methamphetamine appeared to have stabilised at the relatively high price of $685/gram. Police views contained in the report supported the belief access to methamphetamine was “easy/very easy”.

However, other reports contradicted this view. The New Zealand Drug Foundation directed the Herald to Ministry of Health research that indicated methamphetamine use had dropped by more than half over the past three years. The two bodies of research were corralling views and statistics from totally different sources and perspectives, and their conclusions were vastly different. The conundrum for a news reporter – who is most comfortable when dealing with absolutes – is in deciphering where the truth lies.

In legal industries, there are clear and carefully collated statistics to rely on. In illicit industries, the opinions of experts carry greater weight, as key indicators – such as the total volume of sales and the total number of users – are not captured through the Census, market research or hospital records. So anecdotes are used as base references and multiplied to give approximations.

Cannabis law reform activist Dakta Green says, while small community or rural newspapers are often happy to give him space to air his views, large media corporations are not.

“In the main, they are prejudiced against cannabis because it’s against the law.”

However, he says he is noticing a “warming” to his cause in reporting of cannabis law reform issues, particularly overseas.

“In the last couple of years, I’ve seen a huge warming. The mainstream media is coming out very much in favour of what we’re [advocating].”

He says prominent publications such as Newsweek and The New York Times have covered the decriminalisation of cannabis in jurisdictions from the United States to Europe in a fair and balanced fashion. There are very few instances of the once-common “reefer madness” angle in today’s American media, he says.

“People want to be seen to be on the right side of the end result.”

Back home, Green says he cannot afford to refuse to participate in media stories as the law reform movement needs publicity.

“But we are at the whim of the editorial people as to the slant they put on it.”

He has been burnt: photographs of him blowing cigarette smoke were once published in such a way as to suggest it was smoke from a joint; a ‘current affairs’ show once turned coverage of a march on Parliament into a laugh-a-minute magazine piece portraying committed activists as hapless and comedic stoners by capturing still frames of them taken mid-sentence; and some journalists have blurred the boundaries and compromised their integrity by smoking cannabis with activists in Green’s movement, then delivering unflattering reports on the movement.

However, Green says when the media beckons, he will continue to step forward.

On one occasion, when details in a four-page Sunday newspaper feature article triggered a Police visit that led to his arrest, he told a sentencing judge he was happy to be arrested if that was the cost of four pages of publicity for his cause.

Media contractor Damian Christie has spent a lot of his adult life socialising in circles where drug use is fairly common and reasonably accepted. The trained lawyer has been involved in the DJ and dance party scene and has run nightclubs.

He says, in his experience, the law doesn’t stop people doing drugs – it just screws up their lives.

His philosophy is: “If you’re not doing harm to anyone else, then you should be able to pretty much do what you want.”

As a journalist, he steadfastly works to keep drug hysteria out of his stories. As a contractor, he finds he has editorial control over his work so is able to ensure it is not later edited in a way that changes the tone. He says he aims for stories that are “the closest thing to fair and balanced, without the hype”. He avoids stigmatising drug users and stereotyping.

“I try to portray things as they are. I know lots of people who have done P and not chopped people’s hands off.

“Hysteria in the media gets in the way of helpful discussion.”

He has noted a distinct hypocrisy in the media. In 2005, Auckland celebrities Marc Ellis and Brent Todd faced drug charges. Christie witnessed some of the journalists who were assigned to cover the salacious trial doing drugs themselves on weekends. He says most media reporting around drugs involves legal elements, such as criminal charges and drug busts. There is little articulate, intelligent reportage on drug policy.

“I think New Zealanders are a lot more accepting than we might otherwise give them credit for. I wonder if it means the media’s out of step?”

Auckland reporter Chris Rattue believes knowledge around addiction is improving and media reporting on addiction is also improving. The 25-year New Zealand Herald veteran sports reporter is an alcoholic who has not drunk alcohol for 10 years.

His lengthy career in the media and addiction to alcohol give him an inside perspective on both sides of the media reporting issue. Rattue says the media dines on controversy and fallen heroes so it is programmed to present addiction in moral terms.

The story of addiction as a serious problem, a disease with a long road to recovery, is largely unappealing to consumers who flick from story to story, unwilling to linger over a story’s complexities.

“Addiction is not a moral problem, but some of the behaviour is illegal and antisocial and has to be dealt with, and I don’t have an answer for that.”

While illicit drug-taking is against

the law, alcohol – which Rattue describes as his drug of choice – is not. However, there is still illegal and unforgivable behaviour that stems from drinking, such as drink driving.

However, Rattue says the reporting on Zac Guildford’s battle with alcohol has felt like a “breakthrough moment” in media portrayal of addiction issues.

“He’s shown an enormous amount of courage. I feel quite proud of him, really.”

Rattue says he is also “very proud” of the New Zealand Rugby Union (NZRU). “They didn’t sack him, y’know. That’s a great thing.”

Anyone who reads Rattue’s columns will know there is no love lost between the writer and the country’s peak rugby body. But he says, with Guildford, the NZRU has shown leadership and understanding. Where before, the image-obsessed game would force players to publicly make promises to never drink again, this time, there has been an acceptance of the hard road Guildford will travel and the key role the Union can play in supporting him.

The irony is that the feverish media reporting of Guildford’s drunken antics in the Pacific Islands and other misdemeanours would have helped him reach the point of realisation. A more understanding media may not have brought about such a swift acknowledgement of addiction. Another conundrum is in the diagnosis. Should the media approach every story of drug-fuelled violence or drink driving as a story of addiction or does society expect reporters to make the call on whether they are covering a story of illness or a story of poor behaviour?

The fact is, in many cases (particularly those involving celebrities), the stories of misdemeanours and antisocial behaviour surface long before the acknowledgement there may be a problem with a drug of some kind.

Rattue says the murky division between addiction and the sometimes illegal acts it inspires will ensure the answers are never clear cut or straightforward. But the stigma perpetuated by media reporting will certainly fade in coming years, he believes.

“I really do believe, down the track, there’ll be a more enlightened approach.”

What is stigma?

“Stigma is one of the trinity of biases, the others being prejudice and discrimination. It is not just about disapproval, nor is it a reaction to what someone does, how they live or behave. Stigma comes from an assumption about an individual or group so they are treated not as an individual but as ‘someone like that’.”

— Dealing with the stigma of drugs: a guide for journalists, developed by the UK Drug Policy Commission and the Society of Editors

Bad Science

Ben Goldacre, an Oxford-trained medical doctor who specialises in exposing “bad science”, often turns his wit on inadequacies in mainstream media reporting. He is the man who belittled the UK Daily Mail’s obsession with categorising items into those that cause cancer and those that prevent it. According to the Daily Mail, coffee did both.

Is this fascination with inadequacy important? Goldacre argues that responsible media reporting should be a given and is vital, because even those who are dismissive of the mainstream media fall under its spell.

“People read newspapers,” Goldacre says.

“Despite everything we think we know, their contents seep in, we believe them to be true and we act upon them.”

CLASSIC GOLDACRE: Ben Goldacre looks behind a newspaper claim that a highly potent strain of cannabis is 25 percent stronger than the resin sold a decade earlier:

“To get their scare figure, The Independent (has) compared the worst cannabis from the past with the best cannabis of today. But you could have cooked the books in exactly the same way 30 years ago if you’d wanted: in 1975 the weakest herbal cannabis analysed was 0.2%; in 1978 the strongest herbal cannabis was 12%. Oh my god: in just three years herbal cannabis has become 60 times stronger.

And in fact, what’s most amazing is that this scare isn’t new. In the US, in the mid-1980s, during Reagan’s “war on drugs”, it was claimed that cannabis was 14 times stronger than in 1970, which rather sets you thinking. If it was 14 times stronger in 1986 than in 1970, and it’s 25 times stronger today than the beginning of the 1990s, does that mean it is now, in fact, 350 times stronger than 1970?

That’s not even a crystal in a plant pot. That’s impossible. That would require more THC to be present in the plant than the total volume of space taken up by the plant itself. That would require matter to be condensed.”

Photo credit: bigstock.com



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