The media plays a critical role in framing the public debate on Alcohol and other Drugs (AOD). There are few other avenues ways the community access information about AOD.

AOD Media Watch was established in Australia in February this year and aims to improve the reporting of AOD issues through critical analysis of media stories on AOD topics to prevent misinformation, moral panic and stigma. My research has shown moral panic can actually lead to increased use of the reported drug and often leads to legislative reactions that are media-driven rather than evidence-based. Such policy has the potential to increase rather than decrease harm. Meanwhile, the use of certain language such “junkie” or “addict” can be internalised by people who use drugs and decreases the likelihood that they access healthcare services, including treatment. Further, by perpetuating dominant stereotypes, it further marginalises those who use drugs from those that don’t and this can led to people’s drug problems getting worse.   

AOD Media Watch also aims to increase engagement with journalists, encouraging them to report more objectively using science and evidence. Better media reporting of AOD issues will allow for more meaningful policy debate. To assist with this, the project has developed guidelines and resources for journalists when reporting on AOD issues. AOD Media Watch has the in-kind support of a range of organisations and an expert reference group that vet the analyses that are published in the website. And prior to the story being published the journalists are emailed as a courtesy. The objective is not to reprimand them, but highlight how their reporting could be improved, such as providing information about harm reduction regarding the drug they are reporting on.  

Since the launch, AOD Media Watch has published 20 pieces and has a Facebook following of nearly 700 people. The first story we examined was entitled “DMT becoming more popular in Australia“. Its byline was: It’s incredibly euphoric and your mind loses all sense of reality. Yet there is no evidence that the use of DMT is increasing in Australia and the reporters key expert even stated as such. Yet the byline could increase people’s curiosity about the drug leading to increased use. It should be noted that the key expert in the story has a vested interest in creating drug moral panics since he runs a work place drug testing lab, and stated that DMT is increasingly being manufactured “synthetically”. There is no evidence for this and it seems unlikely given that Australia’s flora contain more DMT than the flora of any other country in the world: it is contained in the wattle tree, Australia’s national emblem. However, the use of the term synthetic is strategic since it elicits the logical fallacy that natural products are somehow safer than synthetic products. To highlight that this is a logical fallacy, think asbestos, arsenic and cyanide – all natural products.  

We have also examined the reporting of illegal drug seizures and exposed the degree to which the police inflate the value of the products seized by as much as 200% – and that is street value, let alone how much less the drugs would be worth at wholesale value. Yet the media and the police almost have a vested interest in maintaining these inflated prices as it means a front page story for the paper and justifies the billions of dollars that the Australian government spends on policing.

Australian police present a large amount of drugs attained after a bust. (Photo: Strait Times)

A key issue that we have noted is that many good investigative journalists seem to remove their critical thinking hat when it comes to drugs. They do not question what is provided in government media releases. This was highlighted in a story that stated the most used illicit drug in Australia was methamphetamine. This is simply not true. Cannabis is used by far more Australian’s, yet the media release from a government agency highlighting their results of a wastewater analysis stated it was methamphetamine as they did not test for cannabis, yet this latter critical point was not mentioned in the story.

Perhaps AOD Media Watch’s greatest accomplishment has been our story that looked at an incident in Melbourne in which a several people died and many others were hospitalised after taking what they believed was MDMA.

Rather than talking with AOD experts, the media spoke with first responders who had all kinds of theories as to what was in the capsules, and this was reported the next day as fact: “Flakka”, GHB, etc. The team at AOD Media Watch were able to get a sample of one of the capsules tested at International Energy Control in Spain and discovered that it was actually 25C-Nbome, 4,Fluroamphetamine and a tiny amount of MDMA. We were able to release these results though user forums such as Bluelight and warned that the small amount of MDMA might have been purposely placed in the capsules to provide a false positive on reagent tests. While writing the story a police memo was leaked to us showing that the Victorian police knew this more than three weeks prior to us getting the results but had not released it to the public. Following the publication of our story, with the leaked police memo, the police responded in the media by stating that if they tell the public the contents of a certain bad batch of Ecstasy, then people will believe that all other Ecstasy is fine. Through my work in harm reduction, I don’t think most people who use MDMA are that ignorant. Further, there was a missed opportunity for the police and media to provide harm reduction information, such as not snorting the contents of capsules as they may contain NBome, which is far more active when using this route of administration and may have contributed to the deaths.

As AOD Media Watch continues to grow, we hope that we can engage more students and the public in assisting in the identification of poor media reporting and writing articles with the assistance of the expert reference group. We also have developed a relationship with Volteface so that we can add an international dimension to the project. It is likely that many of the issues that we have identified are not confined to Australia.

Dr Stephen Bright is a leading Australian voice on the role of drug policy on emerging drug trends such as synthetic cannabis and darkweb marketplaces. He is an Adjunct Research Fellow with Curtin’s National Drug Research Institute. Tweets @stephenjbright

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