Bulletin September 2006
THE
BULLETIN
Volume 74 | Issue 5
September 2006

Patterns of alcohol portrayal in a student newspaper at the "No. 1 Party School"

Beth Moellers

In recent years, the Princeton Review has released rankings of colleges in its annual guide to the best colleges, and the “No. 1 party school” ranking has been particularly controversial. College administrators have assailed its methods as unscientific, and the American Medical Association has criticized it for portraying binge drinking as a central part of college life, especially in light of research that shows serious consequences of binge drinking (“Beer, books, and blame,” 2005). Researchers estimate that during the 1998 calendar year, 1,138 college students died in alcohol-related car crashes and 307 students died from alcohol-related injuries (Hingson, Heeren, Zakocs, Kopstein, & Wechsler, 2002). U.S. Surgeon General David Satcher called binge drinking, “the most serious public health problem on American college campuses today” (Wechsler & Wuethrich, 2002, p. xiv).

But which message is the campus newspaper is sending? Research indicates young people’s health behaviors are influenced by the acceptability of that behavior among peers (Ajzen & Fishbein, 1970; Berndt, 1979). Studying student media messages about alcohol is key to understanding the campus alcohol environment in light of the power of this medium and the seriousness of alcohol problems on college campuses.

This study details how the Indiana Daily Student, the student newspaper at Indiana University–Bloomington, covered alcohol use and abuse during a critical two-year period from 2001 to 2002. During this timeframe, one student died after doing a keg-stand and hitting his head on a metal doorframe, at least two others died in alcohol-related car crashes and at least four others were sent to the hospital with alcohol poisoning. In fall 2002, Indiana University was named the No. 1 party school by the Princeton Review (Franek et al., 2001). This study will examine the newspaper’s reaction to these tragedies and the No. 1 party school ranking.

Student journalism

College newspapers are different from professional newspapers in how content is controlled, and in how they are owned, managed, and financed. Kopenhaver and Spielberger’s (1998) survey offered a comprehensive look at how U.S. college newspapers operate. At most college papers (97.2 percent), the editor in chief must be a student at the college. Due to student turnover, the editor may change every issue, every semester, or every year. Only 8.2 percent of college papers reported being incorporated. Slightly more than 5 percent of college papers are supported solely through advertising revenues. While 84.5 percent reported that they were independent of their college or university in terms of content, about one-third of papers receive half or more of their revenue from student activity fees. About one-third of colleges list a media board and the editor in chief as publisher of the paper; others list the board of trustees as publisher (14.8  percent), the advisor (11 percent), or the college president (9.6 percent). A student paper’s audience is usually the campus community. The Charter of the Indiana Daily Student (1969) points out the paper’s main audiences.

Campus publications and the campus press are a valuable aid in establishing and maintaining an atmosphere of free and responsible discussion and of intellectual exploration on campus. They are a means of bringing student concerns to the attention of faculty and the university authorities and of formulating student opinion on various issues on the campus and in the world at large. Conversely, they are a means of bringing faculty and administration concerns to the attention of the students. (p. 2)

A 2000 readership study shows that 93.4 percent of Indiana University students read the IDS at least three times per week and that 80.8 percent of faculty and staff read the paper at least three times per week. These statistics show that students are the main audience of the Indiana Daily Student, but that faculty and staff still read the paper frequently.

Framing function of the media

Professional and student journalists strive for fairness, balance, neutrality, and objectivity in news reports. But Gans (1980) argues that truly unbiased, objective, and distortion-free news is an impossible ideal to achieve. In generating story ideas, selecting sources, choosing what information will be used in the story, and selecting the words that will convey those ideas, the journalist makes subjective decisions.
These subjective decisions can manifest themselves through news frames. A frame can be defined as a way of portraying an issue so that some ideas are highlighted while others are downplayed or ignored. Linsky found evidence of frames in his study of the portrayals of alcoholism in mass media (1970-1). He found that in the early 1900s alcoholism was framed as a moral problem caused by the alcoholic him or herself. By 1966, alcoholism was portrayed as a medical condition acquired through no fault of the patient’s own. Linsky (1970-1) concludes: “Mass media have undoubtedly played a part in changing public opinion on alcoholism” (p. 572). Breed, De Foe, and Wallack (1984) argue that:

The media form a backdrop which helps to frame norms and values about alcohol and thus define the boundaries of discussions regarding alcohol problems and their prevention. The media may also provide people with cues regarding how to respond to others drinking. (p. 656)
Alcohol can be viewed from many perspectives. It can be seen as a social issue, a policy issue, a legal issue or a health issue, among others. As Baillie (1996) notes, the mass media are often used as purveyors of health information. And mass media, like newspapers, can teach consumers about the social acceptability of risky health behaviors (Yanovitzky & Stryker, 2001). Some studies have cast doubt on the effectiveness of public health messages as a way of changing alcohol attitudes or drinking behaviors (Weschler, 2003; Ashley & Rankin, 1988). But Mattern and Neighbors (2004) found that social norms marketing campaigns can be effective at reducing perceptions of other’s drinking habits as well as reducing alcohol consumption among individuals.

Looking at how the alcohol issue is framed is important, Baillie (1997) suggests that “perhaps a more important factor than either positive or negative portrayals is media presentation of alcohol as an everyday part of life” (p. 327). If media portray alcohol consumption as normal, students may feel pressured to consume alcohol when they would rather not, or they may feel pressured to consume more than they feel comfortable with.

These facts lead to the following research questions:
1. Does the Indiana Daily Student frame alcohol consumption in a positive, negative, or neutral light?
2. Do stories about alcohol in the IDS offer health information about alcohol consumption?
3. Is alcohol consumption portrayed as a part of the normal and positive college experience or is it portrayed as an activity with negative consequences?

Method

To investigate these research questions, a content analysis of the student newspaper from 2001 to 2002 was conducted. The IDS is published five times per week during the fall and spring semesters and twice per week during the summer. During the regular school term, about 17,000 copies are printed for IU–Bloomington’s 39,000 students, and about 11,000 copies are printed in the summer. The IDS was selected for several reasons. As previously mentioned, this student newspaper has a high penetration in its market, and it is regularly named one of the top college newspapers in the United States. In addition, administrators say IU has an alcohol problem (Allen, 2001), which makes this study particularly relevant.

The 2001 to 2002 timeframe was chosen because several major alcohol-related events occurred during this period. The first major issue was the death of IU freshman Seth Korona who, after doing a keg stand at a fraternity party, Jan. 27, 2001, hit his head on a metal doorframe and was taken off life support Feb. 4, 2001. Korona’s death dominated much of the IDS news coverage that semester. Following his death, the university proposed several alcohol policy reforms from November 2001 to April 2002. Another major alcohol-related issue was that the Princeton Review named IU the No. 1 party school Aug. 18, 2002. The first day of fall publication was Aug. 28, so the first stories about that issue ran then. In addition, a couple of other issues were addressed in the Indiana legislature. One bill lowered the legal limit at which a driver is considered too drunk to drive. This law passed the legislature April 19, 2001. Another law called for registration of beer kegs. This law allows police officers to track the purchaser of a keg if underage drinkers are found to be drinking from it. This law was passed in March 2002.
The individual story was the unit of analysis for this study. Each story was coded for 30 variables, including prominence, placement, sources, and types of information (e.g., personal responsibility, negative effects of drinking, legal aspects). Codes were used to record whether a story gave related information about the positive effects of alcohol consumption, the negative health effects of alcohol consumption, and recording that health information was given but that it gave no evaluation of the health effects.

Findings

During this time frame alcohol issues were quite prominent in the student newspaper. A third (33 percent) of the stories ran on the front page of the Indiana Daily Student. In the Lemmens, Vaeth, and Greenfield (1999) study of professional U.S. papers from 1985 to 1991, only 10 percent of stories ran on the front page. In the IDS, 38 percent of the articles were accompanied by a photograph or other illustration, compared with about one-third of the stories in the study of professional papers. Thus, at least in terms of placement and prominence, the IDS editors were putting alcohol on the paper’s agenda.

Alcohol-related stories were found in every section of the paper—news, sports, arts, and opinion. Nearly half of the articles (51 percent) were news reports or briefs. The rest were letters to the editor (15 percent), staff columns (12 percent), editorials (11 percent), or feature stories (10 percent).

Alcohol was framed neutrally in about half of the stories (49 percent), while it was framed negatively in 39.6 percent of stories. About 12 percent of the articles were coded as framing alcohol positively. Of the stories that prescribed a positive view of alcohol, nearly a quarter were news reports (22 percent), another 22 percent were staff columns, and another 22 percent were guest
columns or letters to the editor.

When looking at story frame broken down by authorship, all the stories written with wire service information or written wholly by a wire service were negative or neutral about alcohol. This meshes with research by Lemmens, Vaeth, and Greenfield (1999); their content analysis of professional papers found only a small proportion (2 percent) of alcohol stories took a positive view toward alcohol. The Yanovitzky and Stryker (2001) study coded less than 1 percent of their sample as positive toward binge drinking. This contrast, with 12 percent of student stories taking a positive view of alcohol and 1–2 percent of professional stories taking a positive view of alcohol, indicates that student journalists present more pro-alcohol messages to student readers than professional journalists do to readers. Additionally, alcohol was rarely compared with or grouped with illegal drugs, using phrases such as “substance abuse.” This comparison generally portrays alcohol negatively. Only 8 percent of the stories compared or grouped alcohol with other drugs. This finding indicates that student journalists did not associate alcohol consumption with illegal activities. Together, these results indicate that the Indiana Daily Student generally frames alcohol negatively or neutrally, but is more likely to frame alcohol positively than professional newspapers.

Portrayal of alcohol as a health issue

The second research question asked if the student newspaper offers health information about alcohol consumption. Overall, alcohol consumption was portrayed as more of a policy issue than a public health issue. In terms of sources, 15 percent of the stories used health officials as sources. This compares to police officers, who were used as sources in 37 percent of the stories and quoted directly in 21 percent of the stories. University administrators were quoted in 31 percent of the stories and were directly quoted in 21 percent of the stories. Health officials were used much less frequently as sources than police and administrators.

In terms of health as a theme in these stories, only 8 percent of stories highlighted the positive or negative health effects of alcohol as a theme. Alcoholism was rarely mentioned. About 7 percent of stories had alcoholism or alcoholism treatment as a theme. By contrast, 68 percent of stories used alcohol policies and laws as a main theme.

Health effects of alcohol consumption were rarely mentioned. No stories gave information about the positive health effects of alcohol such as the heart-protective benefits of moderate red wine consumption. One story mentioned health effects, but did not mention if they were positive or negative effects. And 14 stories, about 9 percent of the sample mentioned negative health effects of alcohol consumption.

In addition, 42 percent of stories advocated a policy-related solution to alcohol problems and 21 percent advocated an education-related solution. Education-related solutions would likely have some sort of public health component such as classes about the dangers of alcohol abuse, how to identify when a person is so intoxicated as to require medical attention, or how to recognize when someone needs treatment for alcoholism.

Stories about the health effects of alcohol were not displayed prominently in the newspaper. Of the 13 stories with “alcohol and health” as a theme, four ran on the front page above the fold of the Indiana Daily Student, two ran on the front page below the fold, and seven ran on inside pages. Of the 15 stories that mentioned health effects of alcohol, 14 of those stories ran on inside pages and one ran on the front page above the fold.
These results indicate that the journalists at the Indiana Daily Student generally did not view alcohol consumption as a health issue to be as newsworthy as the associated policy/administrative issues. Readers received little information about alcohol and health from the Indiana Daily Student. Health experts were used less frequently than police or university administrators. Only a small percentage of stories mentioned alcoholism or alcoholism treatment as a theme, and these stories did not run in prominent locations in the paper. 

Portrayal of alcohol consumption as typical

If not a health issue, was alcohol is portrayed as a typical, expected, or integral to college life? And were negative consequences of alcohol consumption shown? The results were clear. Overall, 38 percent of the articles did portray alcohol as a typical, expected, or integral to college life.  Four out of five articles (80 percent) showed negative consequences of alcohol consumption. More than twice as many stories showed negative consequences of drinking than portrayed alcohol as typical, expected, or integral to college life. These findings may seem contradictory, but articles that portray alcohol as a typical, expected, or integral to college life can also show negative consequences or may minimize those negative consequences.

Placement of these stories reveals patterns. Stories showing negative consequences were played more prominently than those portraying alcohol consumption as a typical, expected, or integral to college life. Thirty-eight percent of the stories portraying negative consequences of alcohol consumption ran on the front page, whereas 26 percent of the stories portraying alcohol as a typical, expected, or integral to college life ran on the front page. Of the 51 stories that ran on the front page, 47 (92 percent) mentioned negative consequences associated with alcohol consumption. Only 15 of the 51 front page stories (29 percent) portrayed alcohol consumption as a typical, expected, or integral to college life.

Discussion

In terms of contributing to the alcohol consumption culture on campus, the Indiana Daily Student adds mostly negative or neutral views to the mix, though a small but notable proportion of the stories had a positive view of alcohol. It does seem that the newspaper reflects the alcohol attitudes of its community. Articles or letters written by university students or community members framed alcohol positively 27 percent of the time. By contrast, articles or letters written by university administrators or treatment/prevention experts never framed alcohol positively. Pieces written by student journalists split the difference––they framed alcohol positively in 12 percent of their articles. This indicates that readers are receiving a mix of frames on alcohol, which could in turn influence their perception of alcohol consumption among college students.

Though the student journalists at the Indiana Daily Student seem to frame alcohol consumption more positively than professional journalists, they attempt to adhere to some of Ericson’s (1987), Gans’ (1980), and Lippmann’s (1991) thoughts on news values. Normalcy is not newsworthy, Lippmann (1991) writes. The student journalists at the IDS use more space in the most prominent places of the paper to highlight the negative consequences of alcohol consumption, than they do to portray alcohol consumption as typical, expected, or integral to college life. The high percentage (80 percent) of stories portrayed negative consequences of alcohol consumption—compared with fairly moderate percentage (38 percent) of stories that portrayed alcohol consumption as typical, expected, or integral to college life—demonstrates that student journalists seem to be following the professional journalists’ news values. But as noted previously, student journalists do seem to frame alcohol more positively than professional journalists.

By using these positive alcohol frames, student journalists could contribute to the construction of the “alcohol as a rite of passage” philosophy, which tends to normalize heavy drinking. In addition, because of the prominence of the alcohol issue in both negative portrayals and portrayals of alcohol as a typical part of college life, it is possible that some agenda-setting effects could take place on campus. Though students may not agree with what the IDS writes, they will certainly pick up that the IDS staff thinks alcohol is an important issue.

Additionally, alcohol is viewed not as a public health problem, but as a public policy problem by the student press. Students who read the newspaper would hear only rarely from health experts about the implications of alcohol use or abuse. Yanovitzky and Stryker (1996) assert that mass media can teach consumers about the social acceptability of risky health behaviors. But on this issue students, at least at Indiana University, are not receiving health-related information about alcohol from the newspaper. The gap is wide between how alcohol is covered in student media and how researchers and top U.S. health officials think about the issue. This gap suggests that perhaps the student newspaper is not providing the information students need to make healthy choices about alcohol. This could be an area of focus for unions and activities departments looking to find a niche for their alcohol awareness programs. Additionally, if health officials worked to portray alcohol as a public health issue instead of as a policy problem, they might meet with less resistance from students.

These results illustrate content patterns, at least at one college paper, and can give advisors a place to begin discussions with their student reporters and editors about fair, accurate, balanced, and responsible coverage of serious issues like alcohol abuse. The College Media Adviser’s Code of Ethical Behavior says that control of student media content should be in the hands of student journalists. But the CMA code also says that “Faculty, staff, and other nonstudents who assume advisory roles with student media must remain aware of their obligation to defend and teach without censoring, editing, directing or producing” (¶ 8). This is a fine line for advisors to walk. One way advisors can help students to adhere to professional standards when covering the alcohol issue is to provide feedback in written critiques of the newspaper, encouraging students to source articles in a fair and balanced way and to consider both the public health and public policy angles of alcohol abuse. Advisors can also serve as institutional memory for students regarding alcohol use on campus. Student turnover means that their collective memory is short, but advisors can remind student reporters and editors of older news stories, encourage them to include health information in their news reports, and push them to produce news reports with greater depth. Most student newspapers aspire to produce a professional quality newspaper. In sum, advisors should help students reach this goal by teaching professional practice in a way that maximizes student learning.

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