People better support the idea of enforcing alcohol laws after reading a newspaper article linking alcohol to a violent crime or accident, according to a new study by Ohio State University.
For the study, participants read real news reports that featured violent crimes and various accidental injuries; half of these were edited to mention the role of alcohol and half were edited to leave out the role of alcohol.
Volunteers who read the articles that included alcohol became more supportive of enforcing laws regarding serving intoxicated people, sales to underage youth and open containers, compared to people who had read the non-alcohol articles.
Previous research from this group revealed that fewer than one-fourth of newspaper reports and only one-tenth of TV news reports on alcohol-related crimes and non-car-related fatal injuries actually mention the involvement of alcohol.
“The underreporting of alcohol’s role in crime and accidents may be having a real impact on public health,” said Michael Slater, co-author of the study and professor of communication at Ohio State University.
“If people were more aware of how prevalent alcohol use was in crimes and all forms of accidents, there may be more of a public demand for tougher law enforcement.”
Slater conducted the study with Andrew Hayes, associate professor, and David Edwoldsen, professor, both in the School of Communication at Ohio State; and Catherine Goodall of Kent State University.
For the study, 789 adults, randomly chosen from across the country, were asked to read one of 60 representative local newspaper articles featuring a violent crime, car crash, or other injury.
Half of the articles mentioned that alcohol played a causative role in the crime or accident, and half did not.
Volunteers were told that the purpose of the study was to evaluate news articles for factors such as clarity and were then given a series of questions to answer.
Participants were also asked to rate their level of support for current liquor laws—on a scale of 1 to 10—such as how they felt about selling alcohol to underage youth. Participants were told these questions would help researchers understand their evaluation of the article.
Individuals who read the articles mentioning alcohol showed more support for alcohol enforcement than did those who read articles that had no such mention. Results were similar whether they read articles about crimes or injuries.
Participants were also asked if they would support new alcohol control laws, including restricting the number of bars and liquor stores in an area, restricting advertising, and making servers legally liable if they give alcohol to intoxicated customers.
Interestingly, volunteers who read the stories mentioning alcohol were no more likely to support these proposed new laws than those who read the other articles.
“In retrospect, it is not too surprising that there wasn’t more support for these new laws, given the current political environment against more government control over economic activities,” Slater said.
He notes, however, that the findings reveal that people may support tougher enforcement of current laws – at least if the news media accurately reported the scope of the problem.
Public health estimates suggest that over 30 percent of fatalities due to violent crimes, car crashes and other accidental injuries are in part attributable to alcohol use.
A 2006 study by Slater and his research team, however, showed that media reports of alcohol’s role in crime and accidents are much lower. Specifically, newspapers mention the role of alcohol in only 7.3 percent of their articles about violent crimes and 4.8 percent of accidental injuries. Television news reported alcohol’s role even less.
In this study, Slater noted, support for alcohol law enforcement increased after reading just one article.
“The effect of reading one article may not last long, but people will be constantly reminded if alcohol’s role is mentioned regularly in accident and crime stories,” he said. “These stories are ubiquitous in local news.”
He believes that local governments have a role to play in increasing media coverage of alcohol’s role in crime and accidents.
“It would help if policies mandated that local law enforcement include information on alcohol use, when appropriate, in their reports on crimes and accidents,” Slater said. “If reporters see alcohol information in police reports, they will be more likely to include that information in their stories.”
The study appears in the March 2012 issue of the Journal of Studies on Alcohol and Drugs.
Source: Ohio State University