Sydney’s ‘last drinks’ laws: A content analysis of news media coverage of views and arguments about a preventive health policy
- A lack of public support can be a barrier for implementing highly effective alcohol policy solutions.
- The framing of these policy solutions used in media can influence community attitudes and public support in both directions.
- In this example from Australia, a majority of the reporting on the so called “last drinks-law” mentioned actors who expressed opposition to the law.
- Industry actors were over-represented.
- Only 25% of articles quoted someone in support of the policy.
- This suggests that just having the evidence is not enough for public health advocates.
- Understanding alcohol industry media strategies and developing a compelling narrative around the proposed policies are some of the suggestions mentioned in this study.
In 2014, a number of policy responses to reduce alcohol-related violence in inner city Sydney, Australia, was introduced. One of the new policies adopted was an amendment to the state’s alcohol laws to stop serving after a certain time in selected parts of the city.
Within these selected precincts, licenced premises were restricted to 1.30 AM time of refusal of new patrons (‘lockouts’) and a 3 AM cessation of alcohol service (‘last drinks’).
The policy was partly modeled on a similar policy introduced in the city of Newcastle (Australia), that resulted in a 37% reduction in assaults in the 18 months after implementation (and maintained over time).
Evaluations of the 2014 policy change in Sydney indicate there was a reduction in non-domestic assaults in the prescribed areas.
There was mixed evidence about levels of public support for the laws. While polling from the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education (FARE) indicated consistently strong public support during the implementation period, an analysis of Australia’s National Drug Strategy Household Survey indicated there was a significant reduction in support of the policy between 2013 and 2016.
A 2016 statutory review found the laws were likely effective at reducing violence; however, ultimately the same review suggested a lowering of the standards of the laws.
After agreeing with the enquiry’s recommendations and winning a third term of government, on January 14, 2020 the New South Wales Government repealed the laws in one of the two prescribed areas. The New South Wales Government later repealed the laws for the second prescribed area in March 2021.
Lack of public support can be a major barrier to the implementation of effective prevention strategies. This is further complicated by alcohol industry groups using tactics to resist and lobby against effective and evidence-based regulatory preventive strategies.
For highly contested policies with opposition from vested interests, how these issues are discussed and framed in the media can influence community attitudes and opinions, and increase (or decrease) the likelihood that any proposed change will be adopted and maintained by governments.
This study analyses the arguments and evidence used by stakeholders to support their views on ‘last drinks’ laws in Australian print and online news media.
Three research questions were developed by the authors of this paper:
- Which actors (individuals or groups) were referred to or quoted (directly and indirectly) in news stories, opinion pieces and editorials on the laws?
- What were the actor’s or writer’s expressed views on the laws (supportive, opposed, neutral or non-com- mittal) and how did their use vary over time?
- What arguments were used to justify, support or inform these views?
Media articles were collected through the use of relevant keywords in two major Australian news databases. Articles were included for analysis if they referred to Sydney’s ‘last drinks’ laws introduced in 2014; were news stories, opinion articles or editorials, and published within the dates specified.
The content of the articles was then analysed and coded by the researchers in various ways.
A total of 445 articles were included for quantitative and qualitative analysis.
Most articles (79%) were news articles, with the remaining articles being opinion or commentary pieces (17%) and newspaper editorials (5%).
Actors most frequently mentioned by news articles came from industry (213 mentions), which covered actors representing a hospitality or night time industry group, including pubs, bars, alcohol industry and lobby groups.
Of 1056 mentions, 25% of mentions by actors in news media articles demonstrated support for the laws, 57% expressed opposition to the laws and 17% were neutral or non-committal.
Given the relationship between news media reporting and public opinion, the larger number of stakeholders commenting on their opposition to the laws may have been a factor in the apparent reduction in public support of the laws over the period of the study.”Howse, E., Watts, C., McGill, B., Kite, J., Rowbotham, S., Hawe, P., Bauman, A. and Freeman, B. (2022), Sydney’s ‘last drinks’ laws: A content analysis of news media coverage of views and arguments about a preventive health policy. Drug Alcohol Rev., 41: 561-574. https://doi.org/10.1111/dar.13376
Those opposed to the laws referred to a wider variety of arguments to support their view and shift public debate by discussing the negative economic and business impacts of the laws; the importance of music, culture and the performing arts; and offering policy alternatives that undermined the need for the laws.
Opponents of the laws were particularly successful at reframing the issue as primarily a debate about Sydney’s ‘night time economy’, rather than about alcohol-related violence and health.
The media analysis indicates that industry actors were successful in utilising the “complexity” of the policy, as well as in using other groups or proxy organisations to carry their message.
Evidence is not enough
The researchers make the following conclusions in this paper:
- This analysis suggests that demonstration of evidence that an intervention is effective in terms of health and social domains is not sufficient for policy sustainability in prevention, particularly for more contested policies.
- Public health policymakers and advocates must marshal a wide array of actors and evidence in support of an intervention, utilise non-health arguments, build a compelling narrative to support long-term implementation, and resource a strategic media and communications strategy.
- The findings of this media analysis also suggest public health advocates, policymakers and communities need to be aware of the ways in which industry groups contest preventive policies through news media channels.
- Understanding how industry groups utilise the media, such as distracting from health impacts, developing persuasive new arguments and using campaign groups, has implications for how governments and advocates implement, communicate and build support for preventive health policies.
News media representation of preventive health policies can influence public discussion and political decision making, impacting policy implementation and sustainability. This study analysed news media coverage of the contested ‘last drinks’ alcohol laws in Sydney, Australia, to understand the arguments made by different ‘actors’ (stakeholders) regarding the laws and provide insights on how preventive health policies are positioned within media discourse.
The researchers identified print and online news media articles discussing the laws from 2014 to 2020. Content analysis was used to quantify the arguments made to justify support or opposition to the laws.
A total of 445 articles were included for analysis. Four hundred and thirty-five actors were identified, with industry actors mentioned most (213 times) followed by health actors (136 times).
There were more quotes from opponents of the laws compared to supporters of the laws (57% vs. 25%).
The proportion of media mentions reduced for supporters (34% in 2014 to 14% in 2020) while mentions increased for opponents (47% in 2014 to 73% in 2020).
Supporters used arguments about crime, safety and health.
Opponents of the laws focused on issues such as Sydney’s ‘night time economy’ and negative impacts of the laws.
Discussion and Conclusions
Opponents of the laws strategically used the media to influence public debate. Opponents, including industry actors, also ignored the health impacts of alcohol and utilised campaign groups to advocate against the laws.
These findings have implications for how governments and advocates communicate and build support for contested preventive health policies.