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Education and Prevention
Written by Paul Dillon   
Wednesday, 23 October 1996 00:00

THE INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL OF DRUG POLICY, VOL 7, NO 3,1996

SEX, DRUGS AND JUST SAY NO: A MEDIA PERSPECTIVE

Paul Dillon, Linda Goldspink-Lord and Nicholas Parkhill, 'National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre, University of New South Wales, Sydney, 'Macarthur Drug and Alcohol Youth Project, Sydney, 3 NSW Quit Campaign, Centre for Education and Information on Drugs and Alcohol, Sydney, Australia

This paper is based on a presentation at the 7th International Conference on the Reduction of Drug Related Harm, Hobart, Tasmania, 6th March, 1996.

The tragic death of a young person who Sed in Sydney after taking an ecstasy tablet has brought the policy of harm reduction under the media microscope. The extraordinary public comment surrounding the death of this young person has impacted not only on drug education Policy but on the Public Perception of drug education and harm reduction. This paper will highlight this issue as a case study to illustrate how current harm reduction policy can be 'framed' by the media to add to the value of a news story. It will analyse what motivates this construction and look at what impact this has had on drug and alcohol projects and resources in NSW and nationally. Case studies will be presented of strategies to counteract possible negative impact.


INTRODUCTION

On Monday, 23 October 1995, Sydneysiders woke to find a picture of a young girl splashed across the early morning newspapers. Anna Wood, a 15year-old student from a middle-class Sydney suburb, had reportedly bought a $70 ecstasy tablet from a dealer outside the Phoenician Club, in the inner city. She and her three friends then swallowed their newly acquired drugs and went inside to enjoy a night of dancing. Within a short time Anna felt unwell. She started to vomit and was taken to the toilets where her friends took turns in looking after her fora considerable length of time (up to 6 hours according to some media reports).

The young girl was obviously not getting any better and frequently asked to be taken home. She had a high fever and was by this time almost incoherent. Her friends, who like Anna had lied about their night's activities, did not want to call an ambulance or take hcr to a hospital, for fear of the consequences-both legal and parental.

When she was finally taken to one of the friend's homes, Anna's friends made her drink a mixture of orange juice and sugar and put her to bed. At 10 am, some 10 hours after becoming sick, the young girl, by now in a seriously dehydrated state, was found by the friend's mother who instantly raised the alarm.

The school photograph of Anna Wood and the accompanying story of her ecstasy induced coma instantly became the hottest news story of the day. However, the story became even bigger when her parents and doctors decided to turn off her life support. Anna Wood died at 3.5 5 pin onTuesday, October 24.


MEDIA RESPONSE

Reporters, both electronic and print, rushed to find new angles for stories on ecstasy on a daily basis. The Daily Telegraph Mirror (a Murdoch tabloid) rana story each day examining the'ecstasy problem'. InteresLingty enough, for many of these days the issue of a drug-retated death contained no comment byhealth representatives. Law enforcement officers, not offi, cially sanctioned by the NSW Police Service, cornmented on the ecstasy culture, patterns of use and health effects, but there was no printed comment from drug and alcohol experts or health officials.

These articles were accompanied by the same photograph of Anna that had deeply affected so many people only days before, only this time a banner had been added with the words 'just Say No to Drugs'. Headlines such as 'Teaching the young the lessons of tragedy','Drug barons using ever younger couriers', and ' Confronting the drug threat to our children' fanned the flarnes of hysteria tkat was by now sweeping the entire country.

Within a short space of time the'Anna Wood Drug and Alcohol Project' had been formed. With the support of the Australian Medical Association, the most popular television network in the country, NSW's highest rating radio station, and one of the most powerful womens magazines behind it, the Project was guaranteed maximum publicity. The public were asked to contribute to this fund, which would seek to improve drug education in schools. The media highlighted schoot-based drug interventions as ineffective as they refused to adopt the 'just say no' model. This was a factor many believed contributed to this tragic death.

Television crews from one of Australia's highest rating current affairs shows used hidden cameras at a rave party to show how easy it was for young peopie to buy drugs at these events. In a guaranteed ratings bonus, the young girl purchasing these drugs was the dead girl's sister. In one 6-minute segment, Australian audiences were shown what ecstasy looked like, what it cost and where you could go to buy it. The Australian public was horrified. Something had to be done about the drug that had infittrated our society so insidiously and was killing our young people.

For many alcohol and other drug professionals, the media's treatment of this issue was alarming. In a short space of time current policy, education resources and effective drug and alcohol strategies that had adopted a harm reduction approach had come under fire. This mistreatment, dare we say it, degradation and manipulation of harm reduction, could have long,term ramifications impacting on the health and well being of young people nationwide.

Deconstructing the media's treatment of this story and analysing why it developed into such a public issue is a vital exercise. It highlights not only a great deal about the Australian media, but also reveals to professionals working in the alcohol and other drug area the powerful relationship between public opinion, the development of policy and the strategies that support that policy. There are a number of dominant themes that we canfocus onto establishwhy this issue gained such currency in the media, and hence, made such an impact on public opinion.


HARM REDUCTION

The first is centred around the nature of harm reduction itself. The harm reduction approach to alcohol and other drug issues is intrinsically rational; it includes the decision to say no; it moves through the whole spectrum of drug use stretching from' no use' to use at a hazardous level. Being such a broad and encompassing model it is often misunderstood, misinterpreted and open to manipulation. The fact that harm reduction includes the choice to'just say no' was overwhelmingly neglected in this public debate. The fact that it was often referred to as a model that promotes drug use is devastatingly misinformed and not representative of the actuality of harm reduction. This manipulation of the model allowed the media, particularly the tabloid press, to construct an unbalanced and sensationalised public issue.

A further aid to the media in the framing of this story was the lifestyle and cultural norms and values that Anna Wood represented. To the media and the rest of the country, Anna was a 'normal Australian girl'; she was not'a junkie' from Sydney's notorious Kings Cross or Cabramatta. Anna was the 'girl next door' and the media used this as a toot to present ta picture of illicit drugs being at every street corner and in every schoolyard. It allowed them to take what many people see as an issue affecting a marginal poputat ion base and extending it to the mainstream population.

This picture of 'normality', coupled with the type of drug that had been taken, allowed the media to furtherextend and builduponthis issue.There would not have been the opportunity for the story to reach such a heightened level if Anna had died from alcohol-related consumption, which, as we know, is responsible for the majority of all drug related deaths in the 15--34 year age group. No, this was an illicit drug, which carries a whole different cultural perception. The media were able to play on and reinforce the cultural myths surrounding illicit drugs, thus, presenting an unbalancedpicture of youngpeopte and drug-retated issues.


US AND THEM

Another theme prevalent in the Anna Wood story that the media were able to manipulate was the marginalisation of young people and their drug behaviour. As ina similar incident in England'... the newspapers were attempting to appeal to an imaginary consensus -the worried parent, concerned about their children being "on drugs" (McDermott et at., 1993). For certain people, there is a shock element in receiving information about young people and drugs; particularly illicit drugs; particularly when it involves the girl next door.

This construction of youth culture and drug use projects an irrational and unbalanced view of where the harm actually exists with young people and alcohol and other drugs. It also treats the issue in an 'us and them' manner, which is not reflective of the youth participation policy that is now a primary element in most drug and alcohol initiatives targeted at young people in NSW


DRUG SENSE

On Saturday, 28 October 1995, front page headlines of a major paper read as follows: 'Drugs "RighC-Student Kit Preaches Freedom of Choice' (Vincent, 1995). The article proceeded to inform the public about 'Drug Sense', a senior drug education resource that involves youngpeople identifying individual and community drug-related harms and then developing strategies to address these, a kit that supposedly preaches choice on drugs. In a very selective choice of quotes taken directly from the resource and placed entirelyout of context, the public was informedof a kit that had supposedly,'just sneaked into the schoolsand says abstinence doesn't work' (Vincent, 1995).

The story concerning 'Drug Sense' then proceeded to receive coverage on the national news onat least two television stations: it was considered important enough to be the leading story on radio news around the country and was the focus of discussion through various letters to the editor, editorials andfeature articles in various papers around NSW This discussion was largely based on ignorance due to the initial misrepresentation of the kit and the misinterpretation of harm minimisation by some sections of the media.

Whilst a balanced discussion of the issues involving harm reduction would be healthy, the deliberate misrepresentation of harm reduction resources such as 'Drug Sense', has been foolish and harmful. For example, in response to the media's critique ofDrug Sense', there was a call for it to be withdrawn from Government schools. Authors of the kit were involved in arguing against this. Only as a result of many stressed days of lobbying by the many supporters of'Drug Sense', was the resource saved from being physically removed from schools.

'Drug Sense', like many other harm reduction resources, advocates for the safety of young people. Whilst we must constantly strive for no drug use among young people, for those who, despite prevention efforts, continue to use drugs, we must ensure safeguards are in place to ensure that the least amount of drug related harm occurs. This involves sensible discussion of the issues, providing relevant and accurate information, skill development, direct involvement of young people and the consequent development of realistic harm reduction strategies. We cannot continue to bury our heads in the sand and usestrategies that are limited intheirappeal and relevance to young people. What some sections of the media potentially created was the ceasing of such sensible harm reduction strategies for young people.

As mentioned previously, public opinion can lead to a change in policy and the media plays a powerful role in affecting public opinion. Drug Sense was not the only resource that underwent public review. Two other resources that were specifically targeting amphetamine users (long-term amphetamine injectors and 'ravers') and were not to be viewed or accessed by mainstream audiences, were not only scrutinised, but have since been withdrawn.


THE RESPONSE OF THE PROFESSIONALS

Whilst we as practitioners cannot control the actions of the media, we can employ a range of strategies that may prevent the hysteria and the misinformation that we have recently experienced in NSW.

By late November, a group of drug and alcohol workers were sufficiently concerned about the future of harm reduction, particularly in NSW, to organise. a strategy meeting. Present were researchers, drug educators and youth workers. The purpose of this meeting was to address the following problems:

1 . a lack of public understanding of harm reduction;

2. media misrepresentation of drug issues, e.g. sensationalising atypical cases and not informing the public in a balanced, accurate manner;

3. a lack of drug and alcohol 'experts' who are able to speak to the media-,

4. the possibility of losing resources and/or funding for various projects as a result of media misrepresentation,


As a resultof this meeting a number of strategies were identified to assist with these issues. A media strategy over the traditionally slow Christmas period, focusing on successful harm reduction strategies and programmes that were currently in place, was planned. It was decided that this would focus primarily on alcohol, as this would guarantee exposure over the holiday period and that it was a particularly relevant drug for that time of year. Topics that were examined included: mixing drugs, standard drinks and alcoholic sodas, regular media releases promot. ing the message of harm reduction to continue until the Harm Reduction Conference to be held in Hobart. A list of drug 'experts' in different fields would be drawn up, which could be distributed to the media when specific situations arose.


THE AFTERMATH

Drug and alcohol workers are still busy defending harm reduction some 5 months after the death of Anna Wood. Media stories showing harm reduction in a positive light, or where strategies have been successful, are few and far between. Essentially this is because these types of stories do not sell newspapers-unfortunately tales of tragedy and failure are far more interesting to the general public than success stories, particularly when dealing with health issues.

In many ways, Australia leads the world with a national strategy that incorporates policing, treatment, prevention and an acceptance that if we cannot eradicate drug use among some people, we must at least reduce the harm it causes. However, it appears that the Australian public, and particularly the media, does not have a clear understanding of just what harm reduction is.

Harm reduction does not encourage illegal drug use, nor is it in conflict with programmes thathelp to stop people using drugs altogether; in fact, by some definitions, the ultimate aim of the policy is one of abstinence, particularly by young people.

Sensational coverage of drug and alcohol stories does nothing but contribute to public hysteria. Accurate information from health officials can be ignored in favour of giving coverage to people who are too emotionally overwrought to be expected to be objective, thus causing further misinformation to be given to the public. The Australian media needs to be encouraged to cover harm reduction strategies in a more sensitive light, without sensationalising it and thus reflect on many of the more positive aspects of the innovative National Drug Strategy, which this country has adopted.


Paul Dillon, Media Officer, National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), University of New South Wales, Sydney, NSW 2052, Australia


REFERENCES

McDermott P, Matthews A, O'Hare PA, Bennett AM (1993). Ecstasy in the United Kingdom: recreational drug use and subcultural change. In Heather N, Wodak A, NadelmannE, O'Hare PA (Eds) Psychoactive Drugs and Harrn Reduction: From Faith to Science. London: Whurr.

Vincent N (1995). Drugs right-Student kit preaches freedom of choice. Australia: Daily Telegraph Mirror; October 28.

 

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