Celebrity DUIs – A Missed Opportunity?

Is media coverage of celebrity DUIs a missed opportunity for alcohol treatment and prevention efforts?

A non 12 step alcohol treatment plan can provide people with strategies to prevent negative drinking behaviors that can lead to a DUI.

Between 2005 and 2008, there were several high-profile celebrity DUI arrests, particularly among young female celebrities. Female celebrities arrested for DUI included Michelle Rodriguez, Paris Hilton, Nicole Richie, and Lindsay Lohan (who was arrested for DUI in May 2007 and again in July 2007). These celebrity DUIs received substantial media coverage. Did the media coverage create more problems by presenting problematic social modeling for young viewers to imitate? Did the media coverage miss an opportunity to provide alcohol treatment and prevention advice? Researchers at Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health asked whether these media events served as “teachable moments or problematic social modeling for young women” (Smith et. al., 2009).

It is important to note that drinking and driving is a major public health problem in the U.S. In 2005 alone, alcohol-related crashes resulted in approximately 16,885 fatalities, according to the U.S. Department of Transportation. In 2004, 1.4 million individuals were arrested for driving under the influence of alcohol or narcotics. The prevalence of DUI is higher among younger drivers. The authors of the current study posit that the news media coverage of young celebrity DUI drivers may influence the behavior (via observational learning and modeling) of young viewers. The authors asked the following questions in their paper: “To what extent is a celebrity’s DUI newsworthy during the year following their arrest in various media outlets? What issues or events associated with a celebrity’s DUI are covered in the news? How are DUI issues and events framed in various news media?”

The media sample in the current study included 150 print stories and 16 television stories on DUI arrests of the aforementioned celebrities. The researchers concluded that the news stories were “brief, episodic, and focused around glamorous celebrity images.” Although the new stories included standard discussions of the consequences of DUI, the media rarely mentioned the public health dimensions of drinking and driving, nor did the media mention possible prevention measures. The authors found little evidence of media material dealing with alcohol treatment, injury prevention, or the promotion of responsible drinking, and the authors conclude that the media coverage of celebrity DUI events represents a “missed opportunity that should be addressed through media advocacy efforts.”

By portraying alcohol use in a glamorous light, media coverage of celebrity DUIs may even encourage irresponsible behavior. After all, most of the celebrities, according to the authors, receive “paltry legal consequences [that] may reduce any deterrent value of coverage that routinely included glamorous images of celebrities while essentially ignoring the potential injurious consequences of her drinking and driving.”

The authors point out that media coverage could be used to positively impact public health matters: “Research on other celebrity news (such as breast cancer and mammography) has demonstrated a potentially powerful influence of such coverage. Future research should include both an examination of news coverage of alcohol use among popular role models in media aimed specifically at young people as well as the comprehension and use of such content by youth and policy audiences.”

Smith KC, Twum D, Gielen AC. Media coverage of celebrity DUIs: Teachable moments or problematic social modeling? Alcohol and Alcoholism. 2009; 44(3): 256-260.
http://alcalc.oxfordjournals.org/cgi/content/full/44/3/256