Drink deaths 'airbrushed' from papers

  • Deborah Condon

Irish people are being left ‘almost completely in the dark' about the role that alcohol plays in many deaths every year because newspapers are failing to report on this, a new study suggests.

It found that in 100 reports of 43 alcohol-related deaths, not one newspaper article stated that the person who had died was drunk.

The research focused on the way in which newspapers reported on alcohol-related deaths in Ireland over a two-year period.

Alcohol-related deaths were due to alcohol poisoning or trauma, such as road traffic accidents, drowning, falls and choking, where alcohol was identified as ‘a causal contributor to death'.

Deaths due to chronic alcohol-related medical conditions and suicide were not included in the research.

The researchers looked at 100 reports of 43 alcohol-related deaths that were reported in local and national newspapers. None of the articles reported that the deceased person was drunk and just two articles - which were about the same person - clearly reported that the dead person had been drinking for a prolonged period of time before their death.

Overall, two in three articles failed to mention the use of alcohol at all. In the remaining articles, the use of alcohol was suggested, however in most of these reports, this was just to indicate that the person had been ‘socialising' before their death.

"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," noted the study's co-author, Dr John Fagan, of Temple Street Children's Hospital.

He pointed out that the biggest category of deaths related to alcohol poisoning, with around 130 such deaths every year.

"These deaths were the least likely to be reported in newspapers. 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.

Dr Fagan noted that while journalists were ‘generally unwilling' to speculate on the role alcohol played in the deaths they were reporting on, they were willing to speculate on ‘other factors as possible contributors to the deaths, such as road conditions, or walls around rivers'.

The researchers suggested a number of reasons for this, including journalists' desires to protect the reputation of the deceased and their family, and the editorial policy of the newspapers they were working for.

However, according to Dr Bobby Smyth, a clinical senior lecturer in addiction studies in Trinity College Dublin, whatever the reason, ‘journalists in Irish newspapers are not reporting on the fact of alcohol use by people prior to their deaths'.

"If a person drowns after being washed into sea by a freak wave while walking along a pier at 2pm, then that is an entirely unpredictable tragedy. If a person drowns after going for a swim on a dangerous beach at 1am, having spent the previous five hours downing a large quantity of alcohol, that type of death is qualitatively different.

"Our study indicates that both such deaths are likely to be presented to the public as tragic accidents, with alcohol almost completely airbrushed out of the reporting of the second death," Dr Smyth insisted.

He called on journalists to ‘seek information about alcohol consumption' and if drinking was a factor, ‘to report it clearly' and not use language such as 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. Better and more accurate information may avert future deaths in similar circumstances," Dr Smyth added.

The World Health Organization estimates that at least 2.5 million die prematurely every year as a result of alcohol consumption. Irish research suggests that alcohol plays a role in as many as 60% of unintended deaths caused by road traffic accidents, fires, falls and drowning.

The study by Dr Fagan, Dr Smyth and Dr Suzi Lyons of the Health Research Board is published in the journal, Alcohol & Alcoholism.


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