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Dillon, Lucy (2019) Minority communities and the press. Drugnet Ireland , Issue 68, Winter 2019 , pp. 14-15.

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On 24 October 2018, the Press Council of Ireland and Office of the Press Ombudsman held a seminar on ‘Minority Communities and the Press’. The aim of the event was ‘to hear about the critical role the print media plays in advancing the participation and representation of minority communities in society’.1 Presentations were made by those working in the areas of disability, homelessness, and drug use, as well members of the print media. 

Opening address

The opening address was given by writer and disability campaigner Sinéad Burke. Sinéad drew on her personal experiences of working with the media to highlight some of the key issues facing members of minority groups in getting their voices heard. While there is a lot of good and responsible reporting, she finds negative stereotypes continued to be perpetuated by the media. She talked about the unacceptability of what she termed ‘inspiration porn’, whereby the achievements and experiences of people with disabilities are used in the media to inspire non-disabled people. As the media has the power to inform people, they also have a responsibility to frame articles in an accurate and respectful way. 

Panel discussion

Presentations were made on three topics as part of the panel discussion. 

Drug use

In February 2018, CityWide Drugs Campaign launched a campaign that focused specifically on the issue of stigma called ‘Stop the Stigma: Addiction is a health issue not a crime’. Anna Quigley of CityWide outlined the theory underpinning the campaign.2 She made particular reference to how the media can perpetuate the stigma experienced by drug users. The use of pejorative language (in particular the term ‘junkie’) adds to an environment in which there is a lack of understanding of the complexities of addiction and the issues faced by people who use. Users are solely defined by their drug use rather than being seen as, for example, a mother or an employee. Even where the content of articles takes some consideration of the complexities and the challenges facing people who use drugs, the headlines can be stigmatising. 

Homelessness

Mike Allen of Focus Ireland highlighted the misrepresentation of people experiencing homelessness in the media. While only 1% are rough sleepers, approximately 23% of the images used by media when reporting on homelessness are of rough sleepers. Furthermore, the monthly homelessness figures tend to be accompanied by the same images, despite rough sleepers not being included in the figures. The impact of this misrepresentation includes that the wrong services are funded and that people experience stigma. If homelessness is equated with rough sleepers, then the service response is to build more emergency shelters and family hubs. However, if it is seen as a lack of a place to call home, then the response would be affordable secure homes. 

Print media

There were recurring themes within the messages from the two media representatives: Neil Cotter, head of news at The Irish Sun and Niall Donald, news editor at the Sunday World. Both argued that their publications do not set out to cause harm to people, but they recognised that sometimes lines were crossed and lessons needed to be learned. The language within reporting was seen to be changing and both described ‘junkie’ as unacceptable language in their publications. Despite this, it had appeared in some content. They felt the media was progressing in its understanding of its role when reporting on the issues under discussion and that there would be an openness to learn more through contact with advocacy groups. 

Open discussion

There was a lively discussion, with contributions from a variety of advocacy groups representing the Travelling community, other minority ethnic groupings, and LGBTQ. A number of key messages came from it:

  • Language matters. The use of pejorative language dehumanises people, adding to their stigmatisation. It prevents people from accessing services, their voice from being heard, and perpetuates a lack of understanding among decision-makers and the general public about the complexity and variation of people’s needs.
  • The media should question the relevance of always reporting a person’s ethnicity when they are a member of a minority group. It was argued that this always happened when the story was negative, even though the person’s ethnicity was irrelevant to the story.
  • While it is important that real-life stories are heard in the media, dealing with the media as an advocate can be problematic. It draws a lot of attention and judgement on the individual and can open them up to their story being unpicked. If people are to be asked to do this, then they need to be supported.
  • While collaboration between advocacy groups was encouraged in educating the media about the issues faced, it was also highlighted ‘how different the differences are’. While homelessness is a chapter in someone’s life, being a Traveller is a fundamental identity. This would need to be acknowledged in any collaboration.
  • There is a need for greater representation of minority groups among those working in the media.
  • The issues facing minority groups and the role of the media should be covered in journalist courses. Training journalists at an early stage to consider the issues and identify sources of support would benefit everyone. 

In conclusion

The Press Ombudsman concluded the event by welcoming the outcomes of the discussions. He highlighted the independent role of his office and noted that it is now easier than 10 years ago to make a complaint about the media and for it to be upheld. However, he noted that it is hard to uphold complaints about opinion pieces as his office has to balance freedom of expression and offence. He encouraged advocacy groups and members of the media to pursue a more collaborative approach to working together.

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1    For further information, visit: http://www.presscouncil.ie/about-us/recent-decisions-and-news/%E2%80%9Cminority-communities-and-the-press%E2%80%9D-seminar

2    See Dillon L (2018) Reducing stigma in Ireland. Drugnet Ireland, 65: 1–3. https://www.drugsandalcohol.ie/29093/

Item Type:Article
Issue Title:Issue 68, Winter 2019
Date:2019
Page Range:pp. 14-15
Publisher:Health Research Board
Volume:Issue 68, Winter 2019
EndNote:View
Subjects:F Concepts in psychology > Attitude and behaviour > Attitude toward substance use > Attitude toward substance user
MA-ML Social science, culture and community > Sociocultural discrimination concepts > Minority group (racial group, immigrant, Traveller)
N Communication, information and education > Message (portrayal of substance use) > Portrayal of substance use in the media
VA Geographic area > Europe > Ireland

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