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Media obsession with drug misuse defies balance

Posted by Martin Palin

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Apr 28, 2016 10:08:48 AM

There were an estimated 25,000 raucous people at the regional music festival Groovin’ the Moo in Maitland on the Anzac Weekend.

I was there with my family and the crowd were remarkably well behaved. One bloke – clearly unfamiliar with old codgers like me so close to the front at such an event - exclaimed “A DZ dad!” and kissed me on the cheek as DZ Deathrays were warming up.

Security and police were everywhere (especially later in the day) and they mingled comfortably with the crowd, keeping an eye on unruly behaviour.

One of the things I’ve always liked about big sporting events and festivals is reading the media reports of them afterwards. I like being at a big event and then reading the reviews later and feeling good about actually being present at something that everyone else seems so interested in.

So I scoured the news websites and newspapers in the days after Groovin’. I was particularly interested to see if anyone would report on the involvement of “Headspace” in the festival as the major not-for-profit organisation, given their fantastic work in adolescent mental health, drug education and suicide prevention. They had a very engaged, high profile, cool presence at the festival.

The only news report I could find was the terrible story of a young teenage girl who had been taken to hospital with a suspected drug overdose. I really hope she is ok now and my heart goes out to her family and her friends.

As it happens, one of my first jobs out of university was in drug education and my office for many years looked out over a Methadone Clinic near Liverpool Hospital – so I’m no stranger to drug problems.

In some ways, the fact that there were likely to be at least some episodes related to excessive drug use (including alcohol) at this event was entirely predictable given the size of the crowd and the prevalence of drug use in our society.

The media though seem infatuated with stories about drug abuse and the sub-text is determined to portray young Australians as more drug crazed, drunk and out of control than any of the generations before them.

It’s an obsession that defies logic and research. Alcohol use is way down among young people compared to twenty years ago. Interestingly, a new report (launched on the same day as Groovin’ the Moo)  suggested our current crop of Australian teenagers could be the healthiest generation ever. The evidence shows that  high-school children are shunning cigarettes in record numbers, while far fewer are drinking alcohol or experimenting with drugs.

It got me thinking about how the Groovin’ the Moo people might hope to manage the negativity associated with this kind of coverage. At one level it’s amazing – given the size and demographic of the crowd - that there was such a small number of arrests and drug problems. This in no way, of course, intends to trivialise or downplay the sad and painful episodes they did have.

Should they issue a pre-emptive media statement outlining all the positive things they do to minimise problems – ie, employing so many security guards, working so closely with police and integrating the positive messages from Headspace into the event? Should authorities go a step further and explain that while all measures are being taken to minimise risk, some negative episodes – given the size of the crowd, the nature of the event and the way Australians are generally prone to entertain themselves – are simply unavoidable?

Might that help with community education and expectations around such matters?

Whatever your feelings on these issues, my view is that those isolated episodes are a matter for the individual, their friends, their family, the emergency services and the hospital staff to work through as an acute personal and medical matter. I don’t see them as appropriate fodder for the senseless, widespread ‘gee, whiz, doom and gloom, these young kids and their music festivals are OUT OF CONTROL’ style of media coverage.

A little balance in the way news media covers the social dimension to our country’s relationship with drugs and alcohol might actually help shape more realistic community expectations around adverse reactions.

I just re-read that last sentence. Reads like too much to ask, doesn’t it?


The over-18 Palins enjoy a drink and make fun of their younger sibling, he appropriately fenced off from the licensed alcohol area.

Topics: health, health PR, alcohol, substance misuse, healthcare, drugs, music festival


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