Language and Media Impact on Perceptions of Drug Use

Literature Review

Researchers have conducted numerous studies to investigate the effect of language and phrasing of survey questions on respondents’ views regarding drug use (Meise et al. 2009). More so, many researchers have confirmed that the wording of survey questions often affects an individual’s support of drug prevention strategies. Similarly, they affect a person’s affinity to disclose information on drug use (Khuat et al. 2012; Watson 2014).

To demonstrate this fact, Hopwood et al. (2010) sampled a group of drug users using two surveys (survey one and survey two). The first survey used neutral language to explain the aim of the study. Comparatively, the second survey used inflammatory language to describe how heroin use was a problematic issue. The researchers used alarming words such as “death,” “overdose,” and “danger” (Hopwood et al., 2010). Both surveys had different support levels.

The first survey (with neutral language) garnered the most support for harm reduction strategies. The second survey garnered the least support. Jourdan (2009) explained that the framing of the research questions accounted for the differences in support levels. For example, if researchers ask respondents to explain the “problems” associated with drug use, the respondents are bound to give negative responses. In this regard, such surveys are similarly bound to have some negative responses, as opposed to surveys that use neutral language to investigate the same issue.

The media has also played a critical role in influencing people’s views about drug use and harm reduction strategies (Hughes, Lancaster & Spicer 2011). Particularly, they play a critical role in shaping people’s views about such issues. Furthermore, the successes of harm reduction strategies often depend on public support. Media outlets are instrumental in creating this support. In the past, several public awareness initiatives failed because of negative media coverage (Vernick, Burris & Strathdee 2003; Simmons, Stephanie & Ritter 2008).

The OCT heroin trial is an example of a public awareness campaign that failed because of negative media coverage and insufficient support from the community and local organisations (Burris, Strathdee &Vernick 2002). The initiative aimed to introduce prescription heroin to treat heroin addicts. The proposal was subject to a lot of media scrutiny. Observers believed that the government’s failure to adopt it was because of bad media coverage, which later led to waning public support for the program (Elliott & Chapman 2000).

The Australian government also closed a new NSP program, in early 2000, after media reports spread negative messages about the safety of young primary school going children who studied close to facilities that ran the program (Elliott & Chapman 2000). Some researchers have evaluated the effects of media coverage on harm reduction strategies in more detail. For example, Collen (2012) and Korner & Treloar (2003) did a study to evaluate people’s perceptions of harm reduction strategies before and after watching a three-minute audio recording, which highlighted the dangers and issues associated with needle provision.

The study found out that before the respondents listened to the audio recording, there was a 75.5% support rate for needle provision, as opposed to IDUs (Korner &Treloar 2003). Only 20% of the respondents did not support the program. After watching the audio recording, the support base for the provision of needles rose to 86.9% (Korner &Treloar 2003). Comparatively, the percentage of non-supportive people decreased to 11.9% (Korner &Treloar 2003).

The variation in support base affirmed the role of the media in influencing people’s support for harm reduction services. Overall, little literature has investigated harm reduction services among drug users. The volume of literature that has investigated the same issue in Australia is even lower. This study aimed to fill this research gap by using a mixed-method research design.


This section of the paper contains the results for qualitative and quantitative responses.

Quantitative Assessment

The table below shows the results of a chi-square test that evaluated the effect of priming on public perceptions of harm reduction strategies and drug use.

Value Exact Sig. (2-sided) Yes/No Significant
Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs 1.781 .000 Yes
Methadone Maintenance Programs 45.774a .000 Yes
Medically Supervised Injecting Centers 14.144a .006 Yes
Trial of Prescribed Heroin 14.502a .006 Yes
Prison Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs 7.438a .115 No
The government-funded illicit drug user organisation 20.113a .000 Yes

The table above shows a significant relationship between priming effects and respondents’ views. This significant relationship emerged in five harm reduction services. The first two programs that affirmed this correlation included needle and syringe exchange programs and methadone maintenance programs. Government t-funded illicit programs also affirmed the same correlation because the p= 0.000. The trial of prescribed heroin and medically supervised injecting centres also shared the same correlation because the p= 0.006.

The statistically significant correlation between priming language and individual responses also emerged through the correlation with negative attitudinal responses. This relationship emerged in the five harm-reduction services that had a p<0.05. However, the Prison Syringe and Exchange program had a p= 0.115. This means there were no statistically significant correlations because p<0.05.

We also used two histograms to present our analysis as highlighted below

Public support rate on regarding harm reduction service

The red and blue bars have detailed explanations regarding the nature of the responses. The blue bar represents responses from the first survey, while the red bar represents survey responses to the second survey. The first survey used neutral language, while the second survey had some negative priming. The second histogram (highlighted below) shows the level of opposition for harm-reduction services.

Public oppose rate regarding on harm reduction service

The second survey shows strong opposition to harm reduction programs because of the negative priming that characterised this survey. Comparatively, the first survey had higher support for harm reduction services because of the neutral language used in the surveys. There was general opposition to prescribed heroin use in both surveys.

Our second hypothesis investigated the media’s influence on public opinions about harm reduction strategies. To investigate this issue, we used a cross-tabulation analysis. It helped to evaluate the views of those who received information about harm reduction strategies from different media sources, and those who were unexposed to such messages. The chi-square test below shows no significant differences between the two groups.

Exact Sig. (2-sided) Yes/No Significant
Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs .337 No
Methadone Maintenance Programs .832 No
Medically Supervised Injecting Centers .449 No
Trial of Prescribed Heroin .914 No
Prison Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs .919 No
The government-funded illicit drug user organisation .761 No
Exact Sig. (2-sided) Yes/No Significant
Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs .208 No
Methadone Maintenance Programs .835 No
Medically Supervised Injecting Centers .337 No
Trial of Prescribed Heroin .457 No
Prison Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs .317 No
The government-funded illicit drug user organisation .367 No

To complement the above findings, we also conducted logistic regression analysis. This strategy allowed us to put different demographic characteristics on every explained variable. Such characteristics included age and gender. The type of media also characterised our variables. For example, the internet and mass media were two important categories. The table below shows the influence of these media outlets on people’s opinions about harm reduction strategies.

Mass Media (Sig) Internet (Sig) Yes/No Significant
Needle and Syringe Exchange .046 .017 Yes
Methadone Maintenance programs .885 .998 No
Medically Supervised Injecting Centres .705 .424 No
Trial of Prescribed Heroin .453 .255 No
Prison Needle and Syringe Exchange Programs .494 .213 No
Government-funded illicit drug user organisation .935 .336 No

Based on the findings above, the media has a significant influence on NSP. However, there were no significant influences of media on other harm reduction strategies.

The results of the logistic regression analysis appear below.

B Sig Exp (B) Yes/No Significant
Version -1.232 .000 .292 Yes
Agrerec2004 .113 .561 1.120 No
Genderrec -.404 .070 .668 No
Mass Media -.561 .046 .570 Yes
Internet .668 .017 1.950 Yes
Constant 2.921 .000 18.552

The highlighted yellow areas show the significant relationships that mass media and online media have on people’s influences about harm reduction strategies and drug use. Interestingly, both the mass media and internet content had some positive and negative influences. The influence of mass media was.561 (negative), while the influence of the internet was.688 (positive). These statistics show that many people who get information about harm reduction strategies from mass media are likely to oppose the NSP.


We conducted 14 interviews to explore the effect of media on people’s perceptions of harm reduction strategies.

Types of Media

Overall, we found that priming had a significant impact on public support for harm reduction programs and drug use. Furthermore, evidence shows that most people who are vulnerable to priming influences have little information regarding drug use. Similarly, these groups of people are more likely to have some “negative” or “neutral” opinions about harm reduction strategies, compared to other demographics that are knowledgeable about the research problem.

Bias Representation from Media

Our interviewees affirmed the presence of bias in the media. One interviewee said, “For the papers, I’ve read it does seem there has been some form bias information usually with describing negative impacts these services has.” Another one said, “Internet articles can be biased to any extent therefore it is not reliable”. Some interviewees expressed concern about online information because they believed anyone could post information on it (unreliability of information). One interviewee said, “Some publications, especially from newspaper articles reviewed these services by highlighting the negative social impacts”


The quantitative assessment test relied on non-parametric tests. These tests revealed the strength of the relationship between the variables. We also conducted a cross-tabulation assessment to establish the validity of our hypotheses. Our findings show a higher support rate for surveys that used neutral language, as opposed to surveys that used priming. The first survey showed the highest support for methadone maintenance programs. The second survey had the highest support for medically supervised injecting centres.


This paper has relied on triangulation to analyse data. This technique allowed us to crosscheck our data (Bryman 2008). Some possible findings that emerged here include the insignificance of media in the surveys. However, the interviews provided additional information regarding the media’s influence on people’s perceptions of harm reduction strategies. Therefore, the triangulation technique aimed to validate the responses obtained from the research (Hall 2008).

This means media outlets are instrumental in shaping people’s perceptions about harm reduction strategies. Overall, our study had a few limitations because the sampling method was convenient to the paper (convenient sampling). However, this method had its few limitations, such as the overrepresentation of certain samples in the study.

Another limitation of the technique was research bias. The students who participated in the study chose to stay for the first week. Therefore, self-selection could lead to bias in the study. Social desirability is also another limitation of the study. According to Hall (2008), people may often give responses that do not reflect their honest views but aim to appease the interviewer. Furthermore, since our study sampled a selected group of students, their responses may have included “cover-ups” (one student giving responses that another student wanted to collect).


The outcome of our first survey was compatible with past research. In this regard, our findings contribute to the existing literature about priming and its effects on people’s opinions about harm reduction strategies. However, since our research has mainly concentrated on the Australian context, it is difficult to generalise its findings beyond the country. For example, this paper has evaluated the influence of media on NSP (an Australian program). Therefore, its findings focus on the Australian situation. Furthermore, the use of the convenience sampling method limits the ability to generalise the findings. In fact, based on this technique alone, it is difficult to generalise the findings across the whole country (Australia).


Based on the findings of this study, we could identify some strategies for people to use if they wish to increase public support about communication. First, researchers should clearly articulate their intentions when conducting interviews and surveys, as a strategy of informing people about their goals. In such communications, they should provide information about harm reduction and use neutral language when seeking the views of the respondents.

Secondly, the media should be objective when discussing information about harm reduction. For example, they should refrain from using sensational words, or languages, to highlight drug-related issues. Similarly, they should provide a balanced representation of harm reduction strategies. Stated differently, instead of only focusing on the negative side of harm reduction strategies, they should also highlight its positive aspects. For example, they should show the efficacy of these harm-reduction strategies in reducing Hepatitis C transmission and HIV infections. These recommendations have a huge impact on the introduction of new harm reduction programs because policymakers often want to introduce such programs when there is enough public support (Treloar & Fraser 2007).

These recommendations help to build such support. Here, the media is a powerful tool for creating public support for harm reduction programs. In fact, it is unsurprising that we have come up with different outcomes for people that consume internet content and mass media. For example, supporters of such strategies are those that get information about harm reduction strategies from the internet. Overall, both media sources have different effects on peoples’ perceptions (support) for harm reduction programs. Context is a possible reason why the media have a lot of influence on people’s perceptions.

For example, the NSP is an Australian program. Another reason that could explain the opposing effects of mass media and the internet is the passive consumption of information from mass media outlets as opposed to the active consumption of information from online information sources. Based on these influences, the media should provide balanced views of harm reduction strategies.


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