If people see news coverage of alcohol's role in violent crime and fatal injuries, they may give more support to alcohol-control laws, according to a study in the March issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
It's estimated that drinking is involved in almost one third of deaths from accidents and violent crime. But the news reports on those deaths often make no mention of alcohol.
"People have some awareness of the social cost that alcohol can have," said the study's lead author, Michael D. Slater, Ph.D., of Ohio State University in Columbus. "But only a small fraction of news stories on violent crime and non-motor vehicle accidents acknowledge the contributing role of alcohol."
As a result, many people may not realize how often drinking contributes to accidents off the roadways, as well as to violence, Slater noted.
And that lack of awareness might dampen the public's support for alcohol-control laws, such as the strict enforcement of underage-drinking laws or prohibitions on serving alcohol to intoxicated customers.
To see how media coverage affects people's views on alcohol control, Slater's team sent online surveys to a national sample of 789 U.S. adults. The surveys contained stories on violent crime, car crashes and other accidents taken from local U.S. newspapers; each story was manipulated into one version that mentioned alcohol involvement and a second that did not.
After reading the media accounts, participants were asked about their support for existing alcohol-control laws, as well as proposed restrictions--such as limits on the number of bars and liquor stores that can exist in a given area.
Overall, Slater's team found that when people read stories that mentioned alcohol, they were more likely to throw their support to existing alcohol-control laws.
"I think this buttresses the idea that media coverage does matter," Slater said. "Alcohol, as a public health issue, is not as front and center as it might be if there were more news coverage."
Even if alcohol-control laws are already on the books, public support matters because local resources are needed to enforce those laws, Slater noted.
He said that local authorities can help by mentioning any role of alcohol when discussing crimes and accidents with the media. And reporters, Slater noted, can also ask about any alcohol involvement--not just in car crashes but in other accidents and crimes as well.
Slater, M. D., Hayes, A. F., Goodall, C. E., & Ewoldsen, D. R. (March 2012). Increasing support for alcohol-control enforcement through news coverage of alcohol's role in injuries and crime. Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs, 73(2), 311.
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