Saturday, 3 June 2017

Alcohol and other drugs: Why the media often gets it so wrong and why I have pulled away from interviews ...

For those of you who listened to Triple J in the late 1990s, I was the 'drug guy' on The Morning Show. For seven years I was a regular on ABC's youth radio network where for an hour each Friday morning we discussed a different drug-related topic, took calls from listeners across the country and talked about the 'pros and cons' of use. It was an amazing experience and I need to thank the wonderful Angela Catterns for first taking me under her wing and introducing me to the unique and incredible Triple J audience. I don't believe that there is any way that a segment like that would run on a national radio station today. Perhaps you would get one up-and-running on community radio, but even then it would take a brave broadcaster to cover some of the topics we dealt with back then ...

For almost 20 years I regularly appeared in the media. In my role as the Information Manager at the National Drug and Alcohol Research Centre (NDARC), I provided comment on drug-related issues of the day, as well as promoting the research findings from the Centre. It became a major part of my role and I developed great relationships with journalists and media organisations across the country. When I left that role I continued to do interviews, focussing in on only alcohol and other drug (AOD) use and young people - that fitted in with my new business and it was the area that I was most passionate about. If appropriate, I would agree to be interviewed about other topics but more often than not I would refer the journalist to someone with expertise in the area.

For the past couple of years, however, I have refused almost all media requests and am frequently asked by those who remember the Triple J days why they rarely hear from me anymore ... I thought it was about time to explain my decision to pull away from making media comment ... I have just returned from overseas after presenting at a conference on the changing role of the media and its impact on the AOD field but it was a phone call from a reporter just before I left that really led me to write this blog entry ... She wanted me to comment on what I knew about 'flakka' and the fact that it was making those who used it have sex with trees! She was putting a piece together based on the UK article shown above and after a 15-minute conversation with her about the merits of a piece on this topic I realized that it was time to say something ...

I always promised myself that I would not become my father and be that person who says "but it's not like it used to be!", but that's exactly what I'm going to do ... Let's make it clear at this point, the media has never got the alcohol and other drug issue completely right but at least there were some people who tried bloody hard! Now that we find ourselves entrenched in the '24 hour news cycle', are drowning in commentators (from both sides of the political spectrum) who seem to hold unbelievable power and spit vitriol rather than ever having anything positive or constructive to say and have so many people rely on Facebook and other social media for their news - it's almost become impossible to get any accurate and well-balanced information out there!

I've talked about the media and the 'ice epidemic' issue many times before but, for me, that has been the straw that broke the camel's back! Every time I have been interviewed about this topic, particularly in the print media, I provide them with the prevalence data we have on the use of methamphetamine - they don't like the numbers, as they don't match what they want to write, and so they inevitably move onto asking me about whether I have seen much ice use at the schools I visit. I tell them I haven't seen any and, once again, they tune out! I have spent hours with journalists from across the country on this topic and my comments are rarely, if ever, used. When I read the published article they have inevitably gone to an unnamed police source or the like and got the quotes they actually wanted - "Ice is everywhere, it's unbelievably cheap and everyone's using it!" It's infuriating! Yes, this is a horrible drug that has caused devastating effects on users, families and the wider community but it is vital that the issue is given a context. Most people don't use the drug and they never will ...

As I said, there's going to be a lot of 'it's not like the old days' for the next few minutes but, regardless, here are just a few of my concerns in the area:
  • entertainment programs are now often sold to the audience as news or current affairs programs. Morning television shows used to be a great place to roll-out new research findings. Yes, there was always an entertainment aspect to these programs but for at least the first hour of airtime, you got 'hard news'. You were given a good 3-5 minutes to cover an issue and it was 'live' and 'face-to-face', that often gave you a minute or two to talk to the interviewer and let them know one key message you wanted to get across. Now, you're lucky if you get 3 minutes and, even if you're in the same city that the program is recorded in, you're placed somewhere else in the building to make it look like they're doing a 'live-cross' to you - why, I have no idea!  
  • TV programs are now constantly looking for that 'water cooler moment' - there's real competition across the networks to get that one comment or incident that will then make it online and go viral. Instead of simply reporting the news, many breakfast and morning programs actually want to make the news. The opportunities to get quality information about a range of issues out to the general public via these programs is reducing all the time
  • so much of what is discussed in so-called 'news programs' is now delivered by 'media personalities' and not experts in their field. I get it that not all academics or other experts are great talent - some I have worked with over the years should never provide media comment - but whoever thought it was a good idea to get a collection of 'personalities' to discuss complex issues like medicinal cannabis and drug testing in the workplace is beyond me! One I saw recently had a panel of 3 people, two women and one man - a footballer's wife, a fashion designer and a radio host - discussing cybersafety! The number of times I have wanted to put my foot through the television when one of these people has said something that is so factually incorrect is ridiculous ... The trouble is there are people out there who believe that if it is said on the TV it must be true - no matter who says it!
  • journalists aren't prepared to wait for thoughtful and considered comment. The media has always worked to tight deadlines but in the 24-hour news cycles, there is simply no time to wait for the interviewee to examine what they have been asked to comment on and then think about an appropriate response. When one person won't provide the comment in a timely manner, journalists are simply finding someone else who will. I certainly don't blame the journos for this - their job has become increasingly difficult and the pressure they must be under is unimaginable. That aside, as a result, we're increasingly finding media stories covering AOD issues containing information that is incorrect. When it is discovered that what has been written is wrong, it is rarely, if ever, corrected and misinformation continues to circulate
  • many online stories, once published, are there forever. That's great if what has been written is accurate, but if it is incorrect, then that piece of misinformation is dredged up over and over again, often being referred to years later
  • 'media grabs' have always been a part of the interview experience but now that's it, there's often nothing else done to support those grabs. Working out three key points you want to cover for a TV or radio news spot has always been one of the most 'fun' parts of doing a media interview. These would be a simple summary statement of a complex issue that you could almost guarantee would be dealt with in greater detail elsewhere - there would be an article on the topic printed in the newspaper, a lengthier TV interview was due to be aired later that day. That's not the case anymore - a grab is all you sometimes get. Alcohol and other drug issues, like so many other social issues, are presented in a couple of 'black and white' statements and there are no 'shades of grey'
Alcohol and other drugs is a complex issue and no-one (no matter what their viewpoint) is ever going to be completely happy with how it is covered in the media. Journalists have one of the most difficult jobs in the world and now, with the 24-hour news cycle and the growing influence of social media, it is getting harder. We also now have a growing discussion about so-called 'fake news' and its impact. Whether we like it or not all of us are influenced by the media in some way. You can be the most 'media-literate' person out there and be well aware of the particular biases that particular outlets may have, but when you are bombarded with the same message over and over again (e.g., previews of tabloid current affairs programs as you watch one of your favourite TV shows, reading headlines of newspapers or magazines as you sit opposite someone on a train or bus), it is a strong person that isn't going to be affected in some way ...

It is extremely important that people examine the media critically - looking beyond the headlines and the 'click-bait' and looking at who is being quoted and why. This is particularly true for parents of teens, many of whom are worried about things they see and hear in the media that most probably aren't even going to be on their own children's radar. Of course, parents should be concerned about this area but they should always be wary of sensational coverage and misinformation.

After presenting at the conference, writing this piece and really thinking through this issue I now have to consider what I do next in this area. Do I start to engage with the media more and just 'grin and bear' the frustration when things don't go as hoped or do I continue to sit back, refuse to make comment and let it all happen around me? It's a tough one - I love writing my blog and engaging with people, particularly parents - but there's no better way of reaching huge numbers of people and hopefully making a positive impact than by having a 3-minute live interview on a television program! Watch this space ...

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