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Dublin: 15 °C Tuesday 2 September, 2014

Drinking’s role “airbrushed” out of reporting of Irish alcohol-related deaths

A study found that alcohol can be underplayed in media reports.

Image: Drinking via Shutterstock

IRISH NEWSPAPERS ARE under-reporting drinking’s role in alcohol-related deaths, a new study has found.

The researchers said they were concerned that the lack of awareness of the role of alcohol in deaths could in turn impact on support for public health measures.

The study was published in the journal Alcohol & Alcoholism.

The researchers looked at the newspaper reporting of alcohol-related deaths in Ireland over a two-year period.

These were deaths due to alcohol poisoning or trauma, including choking, drowning, falls, road traffic collisions and fires, where alcohol was identified as a causal contributor to death. The research excluded deaths due to suicide and chronic alcohol-related medical conditions.

Findings

The study found that in 100 reports of 43 deaths, in both national and local newspapers, not one article reported that a person was drunk.

It also found that there were only two articles, about the same person, that “stated clearly that a deceased person had been drinking for a prolonged period of time before their death”.

  • Two thirds of the articles (67 per cent) left out any mention or suggestion of alcohol use.
  • In one third of articles where the possibility of drinking alcohol was suggested, in 75 per cent of these cases it was to indicate that the person had been ‘socialising’ before they died.
  • Irish research indicates that alcohol is involved in 35–60 per cent of unintended deaths caused by drowning, fire, falls and road traffic collisions.

Dr John Fagan, co-author of the report said:

In most newspaper reports into these alcohol related deaths, there was absolutely no suggestion of any alcohol use. Where drinking was hinted at, this was via use of vague and ambiguous euphemisms such as ‘socialising’ in most cases.

He said that the largest category of deaths was alcohol poisonings, with about 130 such deaths per year.

“These deaths were the least likely to be reported in newspapers,” he said. “Surprisingly, where alcohol poisoning deaths were reported, alcohol use was less likely to be mentioned or suggested when compared to the articles on deaths due to falls, fires, drowning and road traffic collisions.”

He said they found that journalists were “generally unwilling” to speculate on any possible role played by alcohol in these deaths, but did speculate on other factors, such as road conditions or walls around rivers.

The authors speculate this could be down to editorial policy and a desire to protect the reputation of the deceased and their family. It was also considered that journalists may not be informed by the Gardaí that the person had been drinking prior to their death.

Airbrushed

Dr Bobby Smyth, Clinical Senior Lecturer in Addiction Studies in Trinity said that the Irish public “are being left almost completely in the dark about the role which alcohol plays in dozens of deaths each year”.

Dr Smyth said that the study indicates that alcohol can be “almost completely airbrushed” out of the reporting of some alcohol-related deaths.

The researchers are now urging journalists to seek information about alcohol consumption by people prior to deaths in circumstances which are frequently alcohol-related and, if drinking did occur, to report without using coded language such as terms like ‘socialising’.

“This would allow the public to make more informed decisions regarding their own drinking behaviour and also regarding their support for strategies to reduce alcohol-related harm,” said Smyth.

The full paper is available online here.

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