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Media rarely notes when alcohol plays role in violent crimes and accidents

The news media seriously underreport the role alcohol plays in violent crimes, injuries and traffic accidents, according to a new national study.
While alcohol is believed to play a role in about one-third of homicides and fatal motor vehicle accidents, media reports linked alcohol to specific accidents or crimes significantly less frequently.

Some of the largest discrepancies occurred in reporting alcohol use in violent crimes, particularly for television news. Only 1.4 percent of television news stories in the sample mentioned the role of alcohol in their reporting of homicides, according to Michael Slater, co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State University.

The result is that the public may underestimate the dangers of alcohol use, Slater said.

“People's perceptions of risk are strongly shaped by what they see in the media, so many people may have distorted views about the risks of alcohol use,” he said.

“If the media doesn't report on the link between alcohol and violent crime and accidents, most people won't be fully aware of the risks. This may also decrease public support for alcohol control measures that can significantly reduce alcohol-related problems”

Slater conducted the study with Marilee Long and Valerie Ford of Colorado State University. Their results appear in the November 2006 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol.

For this study, the researchers used estimates that alcohol plays a role in about one third (31.1 percent) of homicides and a third (31 percent)of fatal non-traffic injuries. The estimates come from a study of data from 331 medical examiner studies conducted between 1975 and 1995.

They used statistics from the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration which estimated that 34 percent of accidents involved people who were legally intoxicated.

The researchers then examined coverage of crimes and accidents appearing in a national sample of daily newspaper, magazine and local television news, as well as national television news during a two-year period (2002-03). They determined the percentage of stories that linked alcohol use to specific violent crimes, injuries and motor vehicle accidents.

In all, they analyzed the content of about 1,000 daily newspaper editions, 550 television news programs, and 72 magazine issues. Newspapers and television stations were selected so they represented all regions of the country, in cities of various sizes. Three news magazines – Newsweek, Time and U.S. News & World Report -- were also sampled, as were the three major television networks, CNN and USA Today.

This sample more closely approximates a truly representative national sample of media outlets than any previous study of which the researchers are aware, Slater said.

As expected, the media was most likely to report on alcohol use in motor vehicle accidents, but even then, they fell far short of estimated numbers, Slater said.

While alcohol is linked to 34 percent of motor vehicle accidents, only 12.8 percent of television stories, 19.2 percent of newspaper articles, and 22.2 percent of magazine articles about such accidents mentioned the use of alcohol, the study revealed.

For stories about fatal accidents not involving motor vehicles, alcohol was mentioned in 1.4 percent of television reports, 4.8 percent of newspaper stories and 13.6 percent of magazine articles. However, statistics suggest 31 percent of these accidents involve the use of alcohol.

The link between violent crime and alcohol use was also rarely acknowledged.

Estimates suggest alcohol plays a role in 31 percent of homicides, but it is mentioned in only 2.6 percent of television reports, 7.3 percent of newspaper accounts, and 5.6 percent of magazine reports of violent crime, with even lower percentages in the reporting of homicides.

As these figures show, television does the poorest job in reporting when accidents or crimes have a connection to alcohol use.

“The percentage of TV news stories about violent crime that mention the role of alcohol was less than one-tenth the estimated percentage that had such a link,” Slater said.

“By just watching TV news, most people would have little idea about the dangers of alcohol abuse when it comes to crime and accidents,” he said. “Even the print media doesn't give the complete story.”

The study also looked at media coverage of drug use and found that between 1.8 and 18.1 percent of reports about crimes or accidents mentioned the use of drugs. However, there were no estimates available about how often drug use was actually involved in these incidents.

The underreporting of the alcohol connection to crimes and accidents can be blamed on both police and news reporters, Slater said. Police departments may not mandate that officers mention in their reports if alcohol is suspected of playing a role in a violent crime or some types of accidental deaths. And reporters and their editors don't make it a habit to ask.

Whatever the reasons, Slater said it does make a difference.

“The underreporting of the contribution of alcohol to crime and accidents may make it more difficult for wide acceptance of strategies to control alcohol use,” he said.

The research was supported by a grant from the National Institute on Alcoholism and Alcohol Abuse.

Michael Slater | EurekAlert!
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