Words, language, and framing matter for our thinking about and understanding of the world around us. This is also true for the public’s awareness of alcohol harm and people’s understanding of the potential of alcohol prevention. Words, language, and framing matter for recognizing the problem and its root causes – or for misleading about it – and for the recognition that something can be done about it.
In this opinion piece, I will delve into why we in Movendi International invest curating our News Center and why we write our own Alcohol Issues stories, instead of simply sharing what the news media report. Then I will analyze the importance of framing when writing about alcohol issues, including a few examples of problematic language used in articles published on external news media outlets. I will compare them with our own publications on the same issue to highlight how words, language, and framing matter.
A study published in the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs illustrates the need for writing and publishing public health-oriented articles on alcohol issues. In this study, researchers examined the framing of news coverage of alcohol warning labels (AWL) with a cancer message on alcohol containers in two different countries – an AWL academic study in Yukon, Canada, and labeling provisions in a Public Health (Alcohol) Bill in Ireland.
The researchers found that between 2017–2019:
- 68.4% of media articles covering the Yukon Study (n = 38) and 18.9% covering the Ireland Bill (n = 37) were supportive of AWLs with a cancer message.
- The majority of articles on both sites presented alcohol industry perspectives (Yukon, 65.8%; Ireland, 86.5%), and industry arguments opposing AWLs were similar across both contexts.
- In articles with statements from industry representatives, the label message was frequently disputed by distorting or denying the evidence that alcohol causes cancer (n = 33/43).
Media coverage of alcohol policy measures can influence public support for these policy measures. This is why it is important to produce news coverage on alcohol issues that is in the public interest and avoids alcohol industry bias and myths.
In comparison to the observed problematic media reporting of alcohol labeling, Movendi International’s reporting of the same – including the above-mentioned Yukon Study – highlights the scientific evidence on the efficacy of labeling and warns about industry interference. Doing so helps to paint a clear picture of the gains of health warning labeling with cancer warnings as a policy. It also eliminates flawed alcohol industry arguments meant to muddy the science and confuse the public.
Below we will explore pervasive problems in news media reporting on alcohol issues. At times these issues may have arisen unknowingly to the writer but they can cause harm all the same by changing how readers view alcohol issues.
I have also included brief explorations of how we overcome these problems with our own reporting.
Example 01: Propagating alcohol myths
As an example, lets take this article published in the Cosmos Magazine titled “Low or moderate drinking might not be good for us after all“
The article starts by increasing doubt about the scientific findings showing that alcohol is a harmful product. Even the title is problematic as it uses the terminology “moderate drinking” and says “might not be good for us after all” implying that it was good at one point or thought to be good. The article, in the beginning, establishes and perpetuates an age-old myth that “moderate” alcohol consumption is good for health.
This is the starting line from the article: “While the evidence on alcohol consumption varies from study to study, it’s generally thought that people who drink in moderation live longer than people who abstain entirely.”
The article itself is about a study refuting this myth. But it starts by bringing up this myth. Doing so reminds readers of that myth and re-establishes the myth in their minds. Thus, the evidence provided after establishing the myth is watered down.
This is the reason why we at Movendi International do not bring up myths in our reporting about alcohol issues. It is counter-productive and might be even harmful to do so. Directly giving the reader the evidence that there are no health benefits to alcohol consumption as per a new study is much more effective.
It is likely that the writer did not intend to cause such a problem. Part of the issue is that alcohol myths such as these have become deeply embedded in society and people’s thinking about alcohol and therefore writers and journalists may be using such framing due to conditioning.
That is why we in Movendi International invest in curating the News Center and write news stories ourselves. We want to ensure reporting on alcohol issues is devoid of conditioning that perpetuates the alcohol norm. Instead we want to contribute to a discourse that center around the public interest, not Big Alcohol’s profit interest, meaning we want to ensure a public health framing.
Example 02: Normalizing alcohol use
This press release was published by the National Drug Research Institute (NDRI) in Australia: “Media release: The $67 billion cost of one of our favourite drugs“.
The first problem is in the title itself, specifically the use of “one of our favourite drugs”. Then the first paragraph starts with “While many Australians enjoy pleasures associated with drinking alcohol, we need to treat it with more caution,…”
These statements normalize alcohol use. It makes it seem as if using alcohol is the norm for any Australian. The press release is about a study done by NDRI itself which shows the cost of alcohol to Australian society. But by starting with these statements the press release has already advanced a framing of alcohol that is in the interest of the alcohol industry. It has normalized alcohol use.
It would have been more effective to completely skip these statements entirely and instead directly provide the information. Language and framing contributes to social norming and people’s perception of what is “normal” and expected behavior makes them engage in that behavior because people want to belong. But alcohol is not a normal product and most people do not want to have alcohol everywhere, all the time. But often media reporting makes it appear that way, as in the case of the NDRI press release.
Making the verb “drinking” synonymous with alcohol use normalizes alcohol in society.”Tharaka Ranchigoda
Another point of normalization in the language is using “drinking” to mean alcohol use. We at Movendi International do not use “drinking” to indicate alcohol use. Drinking water is normal, healthy behavior for humans. There are many other beverages people drink including juice or tea and coffee, which are not unhealthy for people. When mentioning water or any of these other beverages we never use just “drinking” but always “drinking water”. Making the verb “drinking” synonymous with alcohol use normalizes alcohol in society. It also hides the fact that alcohol is a harmful drug. Since alcohol is a drug it is much more accurate to utilize the word use or consumption when writing about alcohol use.
A third flawed framing is that the first statement in this press release connects alcohol with pleasure. Alcohol is a depressant therefore scientifically it can not be pleasurable. This myth that alcohol is pleasurable is one that the alcohol industry uses heavily to market alcohol. Using similar framing helps only to further alcohol industry interests and perpetuate harmful myths.
Normalizing alcohol use and framing alcohol as pleasurable at the start of the press release diminishes the information about the cost of alcohol to Australian society contained in the press release. These few starting lines reduce the impact of an otherwise accurate, informative, and scientific piece of writing about alcohol harm. In contrast, the news article published by Movendi International on the same topic directly provides the information, why it is a problem, and solutions to tackle this problem.
Example 03: Normalizing alcohol use targeting women
This article titled “Alcohol linked to greater risk of cancer in women: What to know” starts with the following sentence “From sayings like “mommy juice” and “rosé all day” to happy hours, drinking is part of American culture, particularly for women.” The author claims that alcohol use is an integral part of culture in the United States, specifically for women. Language like this advances social norming and expectations that all women in the U.S. like alcohol and want to have alcohol all the time, everywhere. This framing is harmful because it misleads about two realities:
- The alcohol industry has worked and is working aggressively to convert women to alcohol consumption, as Ann Dowsett Johnston has shown in her book “Drink. The Intimate Relationship Between Women and Alcohol“.
- Most women in the U.S. do not consume alcohol, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
- More than half of adult women in the U.S. reported no alcohol use in the past 30 days.
In contrast to how the Good Morning America article spreads the pervasive alcohol norm, Movendi International has written about these norms exposing their harmful nature. Following are several examples from our News Center.
This article is actually about the link between alcohol and cancer in women. Unfortunately, with the start of the article, it has already caused harm by framing alcohol as normal and even aspirational, by telling all readers that all women like alcohol. It would be helpful to simply write about the topic without perpetuating harmful norms.
You will see that in our writing, we provide the facts backed by evidence. We do not use language and framings that perpetuate the alcohol norms or alcohol myths. When we do write about the alcohol norm it is to expose its harmful effects. We rarely write about myths even to myth bust since that can re-establish and perpetuate the myth in readers’ minds.
Example 04: The alcohol industry using the media to attack evidence-based alcohol policies
This article from South Africa titled “Another alcohol ban? Covid-19 regulations could empower govt to impose restrictions once again” is an example of the alcohol industry using the media to attack alcohol policies. The entire article only includes the alcohol industry’s point of view on the temporary alcohol sales bans implemented by the South African government to reduce the burden on hospitals during the pandemic.
The article sows doubt about the link COVID-19 has with alcohol both in the writing and by using statements from alcohol industry lobbyists.
Movendi International has reported about the lethal interaction between alcohol and the COVID-19 pandemic which was revealed in a groundbreaking report.
- Alcohol increases the health and societal problems arising from the pandemic. For example, alcohol weakens the immune system and makes people more susceptible to infections. And alcohol-centric social contexts have been COVID-19 super spreader events.
- Alcohol increases the burden on healthcare and emergency services which are already stretched due to the COVID-19.
- The alcohol industry exploits the pandemic to change alcohol laws to their private benefit.
Furthermore, reducing alcohol availability during COVID-19 lockdowns was a recommended solution by the World Health Organization to contain the spread of the coronavirus and prevent other negative consequences during lockdowns.
None of these facts supporting the reduction of alcohol availability in South Africa during the pandemic is included in The Citizen article. It simply propagates a one-sided view from alcohol industry of alcohol policy in South Africa even though independent evidence is available.
The article is written to lobby against draft amendments to the National Health Act, the draft regulation 16M (g). The amendments were to include the regulations that the South African government used to curb COVID-19 in preparation for future crises of similar nature. The amendment includes the use of restrictions on the “sale, dispensing and consumption of alcohol” during COVID-19 and similar health crises.
Contrary to what the above article claims, the efficacy of the temporary alcohol sales bans has been proven in scientific research. As intended, the temporary alcohol sales bans reduced the trauma volumes in South African hospitals. In this way, the reduction of alcohol availability helped relieving the burden on hospitals and opening up more beds and capacity to treat COVID-19 patients and save their lives.
The Citizen article is not the only one that attacked the effective temporary alcohol sales bans during the COVID-19 pandemic in South Africa. As Movendi International reported, the Daily Maverick exposed how Big Alcohol used the Big Tobacco playbook to attack this effective alcohol policy measure. Big Alcohol did so by releasing an alcohol industry-funded report written by industry-friendly white-coats to sow doubt about the effectiveness of the temporary alcohol sales bans.
The alcohol industry attacks the measures because it was effective and because it depicts the potential for alcohol policies in South Africa.
Above I have explored why it is necessary to write independent public health-oriented news on alcohol issues. I have also used several examples of problematic language and framing used by external news agencies and media outlets to showcase why we at Movendi International produce reporting on alcohol issues ourselves. The reasons I have included above are:
- Provide public health-oriented writing on alcohol issues to increase public recognition of the potential of alcohol policy solutions for reaching health and development for all;
- De-normalize alcohol use and accurately convey alcohol’s role in society;
- Expose and deconstruct alcohol norms and how the alcohol industry benefits from pro-alcohol social norming;
- Provide accurate, evidence-based facts and science about the products and practices of the alcohol industry, the harm they are causing, and the solutions to prevent and reduce that harm; and
- Expose alcohol industry strategies that attempt to sow doubt about science and research on alcohol harm and policy solutions.