Sunday, 18 January 2015

'Ice Hits Schools': Where is Media Watch when you need it?

Earlier this week the Herald Sun ran a front page story with the headline 'Ice Hits Schools'. In reality that was not what the story was actually about - little, if any of the piece had anything to do with schools. There were in fact three stories written on the topic of methamphetamine, all presented under the banner of 'Our Ice Scourge'! The paper had found a 20 year-old young woman who was willing to talk about a period of her life when she was an 'ice addict' and this personal story (along with photographs) was accompanied by two smaller pieces, one on ice now being the drug of choice among male prisoners seeking treatment in Victoria and the other titled 'Drug testing mooted as ice hits schools'.

The story does provide some figures showing the number of young people seeking treatment in Victoria and they are quite shocking (since 2009-10, 49 children aged 10-15 received help for methamphetamines, including five aged 13!) but the headline simply doesn't match the story. These young people are indeed school-aged but does this mean that they were using the drug at school, bought it there or whatever - absolutely not! Nowhere in the piece do they supply any figures on ice use amongst school-based young people and the opening line of the story - "Desperate schools have flagged drug-testing their students to try to combat the rampant abuse of ice and other illicit substances" - simply isn't supported by any real evidence at all. There is a very 'wishy-washy' statement claiming the paper had been told that "some schools" had made contact with agencies, asking about drug testing and that an agency "confirmed that it had been approached by both teachers and parents" but that hardly matches the sensational headline and first paragraph!

The sad thing about stories (and particularly the headlines) like this is that they do have an impact. The reality is that many people wouldn't have bothered to read anything below the headline, and if they did, they were likely to stop reading about three or four paragraphs down ... People walking past a newsagent, someone paying for their petrol or sitting opposite someone reading the paper on the train or bus are all likely to have just seen that front page headline - 'Ice Hits Schools'. Unfortunately, if you start to see a message like that enough times, you are likely to start believing it!

Now I'm certainly not saying that ice is not a problem - it's a nasty drug that is causing major problems in our community. Do some school-based young people use ice? Absolutely! But it's expensive (if you've read that it's around $50, that's correct - for a 'point' of the stuff - that's 0.1 of a gram! If you want to buy a gram of ice you could be looking at anywhere from $500-$800! That's about twice the cost of cocaine and far more expensive than other drugs like ecstasy), regarded by many young people as a 'gutter drug' and something to avoid, and for the most part, those that do use it regularly have to commit crime to subsidise their use, and often have a range of other social problems in addition to their substance use.

Every bit of data that we have on drug use across the general population indicates that methamphetamine use is not 'spiralling out of control'. We don't necessarily have more methamphetamine users, it's just that those who do use are now more likely to be using 'ice' instead of the less potent form of the drug, 'speed'. This is causing them to experience far greater problems and we are therefore seeing more people seeking treatment. When it comes to schools, the latest research showed that 'recent use' (use in the last 12 months) of all drugs, apart from cannabis, had actually decreased. Now for some parts of the country that are experiencing significant problems with ice, this just won't ring true - these areas are doing it tough and they certainly need help. As I've said in previous posts, these areas usually have a range of other social problems as well - ice often finds itself in a particular area for a reason. Not only do these areas need assistance with reducing the supply of the drug, as well the provision of treatment and education, they also need help dealing with some of the underlying problems that may exist in the community that may contribute to people gravitating towards this particular substance.

Headlines like this don't help the situation one bit! Unfortunately, they're not written to inform, something I thought was meant to be the basis of good journalism. Instead these stories and their accompanying headlines are written to shock and scare - something they do very well!

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