Media reporting on illicit drug use in Australia: Trends and youth attitudes toward media reporting

Project Supporters:

Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) - National Drug Strategy Core Research Program

Drug Type:
image - Reporter Square
Project Members
image - Kari Lancaster Low Res 2017
Senior Research Fellow
Ph +61 2 9385 6799
image - 1314143496 Bridget Spicer 03
Miss Bridget Spicer
Project Manager
Project Main Description

The purpose of the project was fourfold: to identify the dominant media portrayals used to denote illicit drugs in Australian print news media (cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin); to identify the extent to which media portrayals changed over time (from 2003-2008); to explore the impacts of different media portrayals on youth attitudes to drugs (perceptions of the risks and acceptability of illicit drug use and stated likelihood of future drug use); and to identify any sub-populations of youth that are particularly receptive to media reporting. A three part method was adopted involving media content analysis of 3,959 articles from 11 newspapers, a national online survey of 2,296 youth aged 16-24 that canvassed reactions to eight media portrayals on illicit drugs (canvassing two drug types) and focus groups with 52 youth aged 16-24.


Drugs were highly pervasive in Australian newspapers. Indeed over the period 2003-2008 an average of 19 articles relating to drugs were published every day, and that was from a sample of 11 newspapers alone. Criminal justice and law enforcement topics overwhelmingly dominated print news media reporting on illicit drugs, with for example 55.2% of the sample denoting criminal justice action regarding users, dealers or traffickers. Despite common assumptions of “moral panic” and “sensationalism” regarding reporting on illicit drugs in the media, only 7.0% of the sample portrayed drugs as a crisis issue. Most articles were written with a neutral or bad moral evaluation about drugs (87.2%). The media differentially framed drug types in subtle ways. For example, heroin was framed most narrowly (i.e. discussed almost exclusively as a criminal justice issue) and amphetamine was most portrayed using a bad moral evaluation of drugs and as a crisis issue. Between 2003 and 2008 patterns of reporting shifted slightly with, for example, an increase in reporting of social problems associated with drug use.

As predicted media reporting was capable of influencing youth attitudes to drugs, at least in the short term. With only one exception, media increased perceptions of risk, reduced perceptions of acceptability, and reduced the reported likelihood of future drug use. Effects were largest for females (compared to males), non users (compared to recent users and non-recent users), and those who denoted themselves as less interested in/susceptible to drug use. The type of portrayal affected the size and direction of impact. For example, negative portrayals of the health consequences of drug use (e.g. mental health problems), were more likely to reduce perceptions of risk than portrayals of law enforcement action.

Implications for policy: This study provides the first clear evidence that illicit drugs are highly pervasive in Australian print news media and are disproportionately portrayed in a criminal justice context. While the focus has been on print media, there is merit in believing that this imbalance in reporting holds true for other Australian news media. Disparity in media reporting serves to narrow opportunities for informed drug policy debate as framing affects the type of policy solutions that can be explored, as well as public perceptions of norms and risks associated with drugs, their use and those who use them.
This study further suggests that mainstream news media can play a role in current and future dissemination of prevention and harm reduction messages. But given that the dominant messages are not those deemed most persuasive to Australian youth this research suggests that the preventative role is currently being stymied. A clear opportunity thus exists to increase engagement with media outlets about the short and long term harms from drug use. Taking advantage of this opportunity will demand increased investment in advocacy and public relations capabilities and more strategic targeting about illicit drug issues.

Implications for research: There is a need to replicate the current media content analysis across other forms of news media and to assess the impacts of news media portrayals on attitudes in real world settings, to measure impacts on use per se and to assess impacts of non-mainstream media e.g. films on attitudes.


Conference papers

  • Dillon, P., Hughes, C. Lancaster, K., Spicer, B., & Matthew-Simmons, F. (2010, June). Australian media report on drugs, The 6th International Conference on Nightlife, Substance Use and Related Health Issues (Club Health), Zurich, Switzerland.  
  • Lancaster, K., Hughes, C., Spicer, B., Matthew-Simmons, F., & Dillon, P. (2010, July). Curiosity killed the M-cat: An examination of illicit drugs and the media. Presented to the Australian and New Zealand Critical Criminology Conference. Sydney: University of Sydney.
  • Hughes, C., Lancaster, K., Spicer, B., Matthew-Simmons. F., & Dillon, P. (2010, August). Media: The new battleground for the alcohol and drug sector. NDARC Seminar, Sydney, NDARC.  
  • Hughes, C. and Lancaster, K. (2010, November). Youth, drugs and media: patterns of media consumption and perceptions of reporting of illicit drugs in the Australian news media. Communications Policy & Research Forum, Sydney.
  • Hughes, C. and Lancaster, K. (2010, November). Media: The new battleground for the alcohol and drug sector. Presentation to NUAA, Sydney.
  • Hughes, C. and Lancaster, K. (2010, November). Media: The new battleground for the alcohol and drug sector. Presentation to NSW Health, Sydney.
  • Hughes, C., Spicer, B., Lancaster, K., Matthew-Simmons, F., & Dillon, P. (2010, November). ‘Would it make me take drugs in a heartbeat? No but.’ The impact of media reporting on Australian youth attitudes to illicit drugs, APSAD, Canberra.
  • Hughes, C., Spicer, B., Lancaster, K., Matthew-Simmons, F., & Dillon, P. (2011, May). Read all about it: The impact of news media on Australian youth attitudes to drugs. Paper presented at the 6th International Conference on Drugs and Young People, Melbourne.
Project Supporters

Department of Health and Ageing (DoHA) - National Drug Strategy Core Research Program

Project Collaborators: External

Francis Matthew-Simmons
Formerly NDARC

Paul Dillon

Project Research Area
Drug Type
Project Status
Date Commenced

Project Contacts

Related Projects

Back to Top