By Paul Gregoire and Ugur Nedim
On March 31 this year, an opinion piece appeared in the Age with the headline, The zombie apocalypse is here and none of us are safe. The author Wendy Squires relates a confrontation she had with a man, who’d allegedly been using ice, in a small park whilst walking her dog.
The article reads as a warning to the community that there are now zombies walking amongst us, who “have no soul,” due to their use of methamphetamine. The Age even accompanied the article with a photo of some people dressed as zombies, one of whom is seen to be eating a person’s arm.
Admittedly, the man seemed to scare Ms Squires, as he hurt her dog whilst trying to pat it. In response, Ms Squires wrote a piece that dehumanised all people who use ice, referring to them as the “walking dead.” Indeed, she repeatedly referred to the man she came across as “it.”
The author was “so disturbed” by the incident that she went to speak to a local police officer, who informed her that the man used ice. He was “one of many similar ice addicts roaming the streets” robbed of their souls. And the police are evidently “powerless to do anything about” them.
The article is an example of many sensationalist pieces circulated in the mainstream media today, that trigger moral panic, further stigmatise a marginalised group of people, and add nothing to the debate about how to move forward on the issue of illicit drugs.
The experts are on the lookout
That’s where Alcohol and Other Drug (AOD) Media Watch comes in. It’s a recently established alternative media service that’s “based on the same premise as the ABC show Media Watch,” aiming to “highlight poor examples of journalism regarding AOD-related issues.”
The AOD Media Watch reference group consists of some highly esteemed harm reduction experts, including Dr Alex Wodak, president of the Australian Drug Law Reform Foundation, and Associate Professor David Caldicott, emergency department consultant at the ACT’s Calvary Hospital.
Not only do the group want to expose the myths being perpetuated by the mainstream media, but they also want to assist journalists in reporting more objectively using the scientific evidence that is available.
Dr Stephen Bright, senior lecturer of addiction at Edith Cowan University, wrote the first AOD Media Watch article in December last year. It related to a piece in news.com.au titled, DMT becoming more popular in Australia.
The doctor was disturbed by the vested interests of the expert who was interviewed for the article, as well as the inaccurate facts he provided. Dr Bright emailed ABC Media Watch about the journalistic integrity of the piece. And when nothing transpired, AOD Media Watch was born.
The bias in reporting
Dr Bright outlines that the way the mainstream media reports on AOD issues, depends on the substance being considered.
Take “alcohol, the style accommodates an acceptable risk of harm, which isn’t apparent with other substances,” Dr Bright told Sydney Criminal Lawyers. This is despite alcohol “creating the most harm in Australia.” Rather the “potential beneficial effects” are reported, when in fact there aren’t any.
Now compare this with the media focus on the “ice epidemic,” which, Dr Bright said, “isn’t supported by any evidence.” He pointed out the most recent data indicates that the number of people using methamphetamine has decreased from 2013 to 2016.
“The notion that it is an individual’s choice to use substances, which allows blame to be placed then on them, is more obvious with illicit substances,” Dr Bright continued. This leads to increased stigma, and may result in reducing the likelihood of people seeking support or accessing services.
A turn in the tide
However, the war on drugs has been hailed a failure on many fronts. The Global Commission on Drugs declared this to be the case back in June 2011. Its panel of commissioners is comprised of former heads of state and some of the world’s leading intellectuals.
The Australia 21 think tank released a report on illicit substances earlier this year, which made thirteen recommendations regarding the decriminalisation of illegal drugs. Most of its contributors were former senior law enforcement and law officials.
But, is the mainstream media heeding the call? According to Greg Denham, the Australian representative of Law Enforcement Against Prohibition, it is to some extent.
“There has been a shift in some media outlets, with an increased focus on the limited evidence supporting supply control, despite this being where the bulk of government spending is going,” Mr Denham said.
The former Victoria police senior sergeant and member of the AOD Media Watch reference group explained that there’s been a reduction across the board on the notion that illicit substance issues must be addressed solely through a law and order perspective.
“This has been represented in most media reporting, with a greater acceptance that various demand reduction measures are necessary,” Mr Denham explained. There’s also been a greater openness to reflect on the benefits of harm reduction measures, such as pill testing.
The evidence is there
And the conservatives are even getting on board. Denham points to a recent article in the Herald Sun titled, Premier Daniel Andrews baulks at safe injecting. It states all the evidence supporting the establishment a medically supervised injecting room in the Melbourne suburb of North Richmond.
As well as outlining the support the trial of a safe injecting room has from organisations, such as the Victorian Police Association, Ambulance Employees Australia and the United Firefighters Union. Then it calls out the Victorian premier on his refusal to support the facility.
“As the state’s leader, premier Daniel Andrews has been unwilling to declare any such support – which is surprising. Indeed, the reasons are likely political rather than legal or ethical,” the author wrote, and went onto question why the premier is opposed to protecting the lives of drugs users.
A matter of time
In turn, the fact that a group like AOD Media Watch has emerged is a sign that the approach to illicit drugs is changing in Australia. And the more that journalists have the evidence put before them, the harder it will be to deny it.
AOD Media watch is concerned that the sensationalist reporting that still occurs in the mainstream media regarding illicit drugs only serves to increase the harms associated with their use.
“We know that the best way to assist people with drug problems is to help them reintegrate into society and these narratives are a barrier to that,” Dr Bright concluded.