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Media coverage of alcohol in crime might sway public opinion, support of liquor laws

Courtesy of MCT

When people read in a news article that alcohol was a factor in a crime or accident, they are more likely to support the enforcement of alcohol laws, according to new research conducted at Ohio State.

According to a press release about the study, previous OSU research shows that newspapers mention the involvement of alcohol fewer than one in four times, and TV news reports mention it one in 10 times, when there was alcohol involvement in a crime.

Communication professor Michael Slater, part of the team that conducted the study, said in an email to The Lantern that law enforcement and reporters should do a better job of communicating about the involvement of alcohol in crimes so that it can be accurately reported.

“From my conversations with people knowledgeable about media and police, it would be quite valuable if police procedurally made a practice of attempting to ascertain if alcohol was involved with a crime or non-motor vehicle injury and include that information in the police report,” Slater said. “Conversely, if reporters make a practice of asking police about this, it is more likely that such information will start finding its way into police reports.”

Participants in the study read news reports from the United States that involved violent crimes and various accidental injuries, half of which were edited to include the involvement of alcohol and half of which were edited to not include that information, according to the press release. Seven-hundred-and-eighty-nine adults across the country were surveyed.

Rachel Reineck, a third-year in nursing, said she thinks reporters on these types of issues should be more consistent.

“I don’t know why it wouldn’t be reported,” she said. “I feel like it should be the same way every time.”

She said when it comes to enforcing laws, people should be judged on a crime itself and not whether alcohol was involved. She feels that alcohol might make people think that someone should be given a harsher sentence, while others might favor leniency based on alcohol involvement, but that people should accept their actions are what they are regardless of substance use.

Reineck said alcohol involvement should be considered a fact, and without reporting that fact there is an omission to the story, which might skew people’s perception of the crime.

“I think people need to do a better job of being objective … just looking at the facts,” Reineck said.

Jenny Sulcebarger, a fourth-year in chemistry, said she agreed that news outlets should report involvement of alcohol to avoid creating a negative perception of law enforcement officers for doing their job.

“I know newspapers don’t always report all the facts so it can skew things,” Sulcebarger said. “So if (reporters) don’t report involvement we are more likely to criticize law enforcement. Like maybe (perpetrators) weren’t doing anything wrong.”

She said she thinks the public might backlash after an arrest if they don’t get the whole story.

“Many people get most information from what they read, so people could be better-informed,” Sulcebarger said.

Three others were involved in the study – communication professor David Ewoldsen, associate communication and psychology professor Andrew Hayes and Catherine Goodall, assistant communication professor at Kent State University.

Slater said these reports are read by advocacy and public health organizations that push for change, and they could have a real impact on the way crimes are reported.

“An unusual aspect of the study is that it involves an online research panel that is reasonably representative of the U.S. population and a representative sample of news stories from local newspapers in the U.S.,” Slater said in an email. “If we can identify what makes some stories more influential than others, this is information that can be used by people who work with the press in public health and advocacy contexts; reporters and editors too may be interested in what aspects of such stories impact people most.”

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