Background: Media reporting on illicit issues has been frequently criticised for being sensationalised, biased and narrow. Yet, there have been few broad and systematic analyses of the nature of reporting. Using a large sample and methods commonly adopted in media communications analysis this paper sought to identify the dominant media portrayals used to denote illicit drugs in Australian newspapers and to compare and contrast portrayals across drug types. Methods: A retrospective content analysis of Australian print media was carried out over the period 2003-2008 from a sample comprised of 11 newspapers. Articles that contained one or more mention of five different drugs (or derivatives) were identified: cannabis, amphetamines, ecstasy, cocaine and heroin. A sub-sample of 4397 articles was selected for media content analysis (with 2045 selected for full content analysis) and a large number of text elements coded for each. Key elements included topic, explicit or implicit messages about the consequences of drugs/use and three value dimensions: overall tone, whether drugs were portrayed as a crisis issue and moral evaluations of drugs/use. Results: The dominant media portrayals depicted law enforcement or criminal justice action (55%), but most articles were reported in a neutral manner, in the absence of crisis framings. Portrayals differed between drugs, with some containing more narrow frames and more explicit moral evaluations than others. For example, heroin was disproportionately framed as a drug that will lead to legal problems. In contrast, ecstasy and cocaine were much more likely to emphasise health and social problems. Conclusion: Media reporting on illicit drugs is heavily distorted towards crime and deviance framings, but may be less overtly sensationalised, biased and narrowly framed than previously suggested. This is not to suggest there is no sensationalism or imbalance, but this appears more associated with particular drug types and episodes of heightened public concern.
- Illicit drugs