Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Print Media Reporting on Drugs and Crime, 1995-1998

Academic journal article Trends & Issues in Crime and Criminal Justice

Print Media Reporting on Drugs and Crime, 1995-1998

Article excerpt

In any modern society, the media provide important sources of information about matters beyond people's personal experience. This applies especially to social deviance, including drugs and crime. How the media report drugs and crime, therefore, has a great impact on public debate about and ultimately on policy decisions related to, drugs and crime. There has been much criticism of the way in which the media report on drugs and crime. However, there have been relatively few systematic empirical studies of the media's portrayal of drugs and crime in Australia. This paper attempts to redress this lack of a knowledge base by examining a sample of print media reporting on drugs and crime from January 1995 to December 1998. The paper focuses on sources used by the media, the types of drugs covered, and the connection posited in media reporting between drugs and nondrug criminality. It concludes with some suggestions about how media professionals and stakeholders (especially criminal justice researchers and government) can work together to improve reporting on drugs and crime. These include the setting up of guidelines so that drugs and crime are reported in a manner that takes account of public interest.

Adam Graycar


In recent times, State and Federal governments have sought to rationalise the provision of services and to base policy upon evidence of effectiveness. However, policy development is necessarily constrained by public opinion. Research has found that although the media may not change opinion, they set the agenda and the parameters of the discussion and debate. For this reason, the way in which the media depict drugs and crime has serious policy ramifications. Furthermore, the media is one of the principal sources of information on subjects outside the bounds of people's direct experience. Drug-related crime, of a kind serious and exceptional enough to make the news, is one of these subjects.

Media reporting on drugs and crime, as on other aspects of social deviance, has been widely criticised, in both academic and popular discourse, as a limited and distorting representation of its subjects (see Chan 1995). It is alleged that the media depend largely on limited, easily accessible sources - often "authorities" that "own" an issue - and, therefore, present a one-sided picture (Ericson et al. 1989). However, there have been few systematic empirical studies of the media's portrayal of drugs and crime in Australia. Two detailed studies by Bell (1983, 1985) examine the construction of a normative discourse on drugs in the media. Bell argues that media coverage of drugs "educate[s] ... audiences to a resigned, alienated passivity", systematically ignoring the broader social context of drug use and "focusing on the individual victim as a publicly confessing example of the consequences of drug consumption" (Bell 1985).

Bell's qualitative studies do not focus specifically on how the media depict drug-related crime. More recently, Elliott and Chapman (2000) examined the portrayal of heroin addiction within the context of the Australian Capital Territory heroin trial. They concluded that:

The cultural value of abstinence from drug use and the ideology of individualism with its connotations of heroin use as a choice that required punishment rather than help were rarely challenged, reinforcing the view of drug use as a problem of individual morality. (Elliott and Chapman 2000 p. 191)

This paper examines sources of information and connections posited between drugs and crime, as well as type of newspaper and type of drugs and crime referred to in newspaper articles. The database consists of 8651 press reports focused specifically on drugs and crime held by the Alcohol and Other Drugs Council of Australia (ADCA) clipping service. The period covered is between January 1995 and December 1998. A number of newspapers, both metropolitan and regional, are represented in the sample. …

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