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Student: Nicholas Pascoe
Supervisors: Dr Lisa Fitzgerald, Ms Gillian Abel, Dr Cheryl Brunton [Dept Public Health & General Practice]
Sponsor: Health Research Council of NZ

This project examines the role and impact of the print media in their reporting on the Prostitution Reform Act, 2003 (PRA). The PRA takes a 'harm minimization' approach to public health, and is a clear attempt at creating 'healthy public policy'. This project has three parts. The first outlines previously established knowledge about how the media influences politicians and public opinion. The second discusses the media's impact on health policy. The third presents a detailed investigation of the reporting on the PRA in New Zealand, using critical media analysis.

Critical media analysis was developed in Media Studies and is used by health and medical social scientists. This project examines messages communicated in/by the print media. A detailed analysis of the content of messages is performed, including coding each for the themes dealt with, identification of the assumptions/assertions made, recording the sources cited, as well as the overall tone or disposition of the article towards the PRA.

This study takes place within the context of a larger research project following the enactment of the PRA. Preliminary results from that project found that the sex workers felt both empowered and stigmatized since the enactment of the PRA and the controversy which surrounded it. In particular, many sex workers described how stigmatization makes them reluctant to disclose their occupation to health professionals and to utilise health services. From a public health standpoint, this is a negative outcome. It is within this context that coverage of the issue of sex work reform is examined.

Existing research has demonstrated the key role that the media plays in defining the relationships between individuals and groups in society. There are many factors which impact upon the manner in which the media influence these relationships. These include the different levels of resources that various groups can mobilize in their favor and their position in relation to 'mainstream' society. Such factors greatly influence a group's access to the media and their control over the manner in which they are portrayed.

The media have been found to have an important influence over public opinion, politicians and the policy process, through their selection and repetition of particular themes, values, assumptions and their reliance on certain sources of information over others. It is clear that opinions and positions depicted in the media influence the manner in which individuals think about and form opinions. Further, the more particular themes, values and attitudes are presented in the media, the greater the influence. This influence is even more profound in the case of politicians, who use the media as a gauge of public opinion and sentiment on particular issues. Various examples of research regarding issues as diverse as HIV/AIDS, the Gulf war, the death penalty and alcohol control policy demonstrate the impact of media coverage on public opinion, politicians and the policy process.

The role and impact of the media with regard to healthy public policy, in the context of the Ottawa Charter for Health Promotion, is discussed. The manner in which the media use specific patterns and story-telling devices in their health-related reporting include the use of basic oppositions such as hero/villain, pleasure/pain, and clean/dirty, and the common use of specific characters and themes, such as the dangers of modern life, villains and freaks, victimhood, professional heroes, and lay heroes. It is clear that the role and motivations of the media are not aligned with policy makers and public health officials. Research on the depiction of sex workers outlines the manner in which the media have consistently depicted and marginalised female sex workers as the 'Other', presenting them as social pariahs, belonging to an underworld associated with crime and drugs. This was found to be symptomatic of the manner in which deeply held ideas of deviance and immorality can be brought into play to reassert moral order.

The detailed content analysis of print media reporting on the PRA found several interesting issues. Firstly, it is clear that there were many more items published in The Christchurch Press than any other newspaper in New Zealand. Secondly, across all types of material published, by far the group of individuals most cited was politicians. Conversely, sex workers were cited comparatively infrequently. The most frequently made assumptions/assertions published were that there are/would be more underage sex work post-PRA and that there is/will be more crime post-PRA. News articles were often neutral in tone towards the PRA, and articles covered a range of themes, most commonly being either purely descriptive or discussing implementation and compliance issues arising out of the PRA. Letters to the editor were overwhelmingly negative in disposition towards the PRA, with the most common theme being that sex work is a threat to the dominant morality. This was often tied to a view that the PRA was part of a wider program to legislate for social and moral liberalism. A similar negative assumption regarding a rise in underage sex work was made. There was very little provision of evidence to support these assumptions.

This study concludes that the media reporting on the PRA has had an impact on both public opinion and on the ability of the PRA to achieve its public health related goals. There has been substantial repetition of assumptions, opinions and associations regarding increased crime and nuisance associated with sex work as well as claims of increased numbers of underage sex workers. While minimal evidence to support such claims and associations has been provided, it is clear that merely through repeated association, public opinion is affected. It is relevant that the opinions sought most often are those of politicians, who do not claim to be experts in assessing the success or failure of public health policies, and offer opinion rather than fact-based discussion of the issue. The media have played an important role putting the PRA on the agenda of politicians by continually seeking their comment and opinion, thereby driving the debate, rather than merely observing and reporting on it.

The reporting of the PRA uses the story telling devices and oppositions found in the reporting of health stories elsewhere. Sex workers are represented as the immoral 'Other', consistent with findings overseas. Letters to the editor demonstrate the manner in which individuals have used this debate in order to define their own moral stance, where sex work is often depicted by moral and social conservatives as a threat to the dominant morality.

The debate in the print media has clearly been moralistic in nature, rather than focusing on an evidence-based public health approach to the issue. This may be, in part, due to the role that the media play in society – to entertain and inform the widest possible audience whilst making a profit. This may sometimes be, but is clearly not always compatible, with presenting a balanced discussion of complex social and public health issues. Any assessment of public opinion in particular, must be viewed in this light. This must be done so that the issues at the centre of the debate, which, according to the authors of the PRA are public health related (and can only be reliably judged on the basis of sound evidence), are not lost in speculation and opinion concerning morality and crime.

In this case, where initial research found that sex workers feel stigmatized following the debate surrounding sex work reform, and may consequently be less likely to disclose their occupation to health workers, the role of the media in the success or failure of the PRA must be considered carefully. It is quite plausible that the media coverage has resulted in changes in public opinion and increased awareness of sex workers, which could lead to increased stigmatization. One must therefore question whether the media needs to look at itself and the role that it plays in this issue, as clearly it is more than a neutral observer.

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