Substance Use in the Media

Substance Use in the Media

This morning, just as the working world was rising, I was interviewed on the BBC’s Morning Ulster radio show. It was a follow up to a piece by the BBC news journalist, Chi Chi Izundu who reported on it from London last night. In preparation, she came to Northern Ireland to look into the use of alprazolam, better known as Xanax.

Whilst the use of this drug is widespread across the UK, it is true to say that Northern Ireland has a higher prevalence of using medications (both prescribed and counterfeit) for their psychoactive effects. The main antecedent to this is the conflict era. Benzodiazepines were widely prescribed, especially in areas where the conflict was most severe.

However, Xanax itself is not available under the NHS. There are a small number of people who pay for their own private prescription of it, but not many. The surge in use has been driven by counterfeit Xanax, produced in Asia, purchased on the dark web, and posted to the UK, where it is pressed into 2mg ‘bars’ and sold at local level by dealers who usually sell other substances alongside.

I was asked for comment on the scale and severity of the issue, the paradoxical effects sometimes seen with this family of medications and what is needed to really deal with the roots of the problem. Hopefully I contributed something useful to the discussion.

Reflecting on this interview and others I have previously given, there is sometimes a tension between what the media wish to hear from commentators and the reality. An example of this is when a drug suddenly makes itself known to the media, such as mephedrone in 2010 or fentanyls in 2016. It seems to me that most stories are far too simplistic and sensationalised to be of any real benefit to the general public. The depth of understanding sometimes looked for is far too shallow.

Don’t get me wrong, I have a great respect for the important role the established media play in a healthy, democratic society. Without that we would eventually tilt towards totalitarianism. As part of my role with Extern, the media get a chance to explore these issues in as much depth as they have time or interest in.

What might make the perfect news story on any particular drug?

Well, first it needs to be a real issue, rather than one largely created and maintained by the media (e.g. ‘mephedrone menace’). It does no society any good to create yet another substance with unknown long-term effects. So the media need to restrain their impulse to sensationalise.

Second, the report should reflect a range of views, including those which differ from our own. Part of this could be looking at it from different resolutions of focus. For example a low resolution focus initially, for example on national trends, all the way through to a high resolution focus on a person or small group who are affected by the substance.

Third, the people who want to be interviewed on a given subject are not always the most informed to give the details succinctly and under considerable pressure for the soundbite, and in very limited time. Sometimes it is those who do not want to be interviewed who have a unique ability to provide expert input. Don’t confuse willingness for competence or expertise.

Fourth, the language used. We can’t control what the written print says or the TV reporter asks but we can choose our own words carefully and gently challenge the use of stigmatising language if it arises. That isn’t about being irritatingly politically correct, which is another issue entirely. It is merely acting as a gatekeeper to the direction of the narrative, ensuring it doesn’t veer off into labelling or hysteria. The motivation here isn’t being ‘correct’, it’s to protect some of the most vulnerable from further social isolation.

Lastly, and most importantly, interviews should allow for the maximum level of input from those affected by the drug. This area is fraught with risk for the person. I’ve known people who have been intimidated from their homes after giving an honest interview. They need to know beforehand that the digital footprint they will leave is not erasable. It will last forever, in theory, and means that they should be careful not to make a bad situation even worse.

It is all too easy to be lulled into giving an interview without really realising the potential long-term consequences. However, there are journalists like BBC Northern Ireland’s Robbie Meredith who have done this well in the past. His radio interviews with injecting drug users engaged with an outreach service in/around 2011 were a model of good practice in this respect.

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