The Australasian Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders (FASD) conference in Brisbane this week is likely to attract widespread media interest.
Recognising that media coverage can have both helpful and harmful consequences, Associate Professor Jane Latimer from the George Institute for Global Health has some advice for journalists covering FASD.
She was interviewed for the article below by journalist Mardi Chapman, who will cover the event for the Croakey Conference Reporting Service.
Designated “a time to learn, a time to act”, the two-day conference will profile new research on FASD, highlight the impact of FASD on individuals, families and communities, and bring together some of the stakeholders, professions and agencies fashioning a response to FASD.
FASD is the most common preventable cause of non-genetic intellectual disability in Australia. While the key message is deceptively simple – FASD is completely preventable if pregnant women do not consume alcohol – the issues are complex and fraught with sensitivities.
Tips for covering FASD
1. Use neutral language when referring to families living with FASD.
An analysis of media reporting of alcohol consumption during pregnancy and FASD in Australian print media during 2012 found that 20% of newspaper reports were critical of women who consume alcohol during pregnancy. This judgemental approach stymies rational discussion about FASD and risks isolating and stigmatising these women. The fear of being blamed and shamed can discourage women from seeking help for their children.
2. Provide consistent messaging about alcohol consumption during pregnancy with reference to national guidelines.
Confusion about what constitutes safe levels of alcohol consumption during pregnancy persists in the community despite clear recommendations from the NHMRC since 2009. Australian Guidelines to Reduce Health Risks from Drinking Alcohol during pregnancy state that maternal alcohol consumption can harm the developing fetus or breastfeeding baby. They recommend that not drinking is the safest option for women who are pregnant or planning a pregnancy. Not drinking is also the safest option for women who are breastfeeding.
3. Avoid language such as ‘bingeing’, ‘boozing’, ‘drunks’ or ‘alcoholics’, which implies only heavy drinking is harmful to the fetus.
While the risk of harm to the fetus is highest with high levels of exposure to alcohol, there is no known safe limit. Other factors such as the mother’s ability to metabolise alcohol or the sensitivity of the fetus will also mediate the potential harm. While the risk of harm to the fetus is likely to be low if a woman has consumed only small amounts of alcohol before she knew she was pregnant or during pregnancy, the risk is nevertheless unpredictable. High levels of FASD have been recorded in populations where moderate daily drinking is more common than heavy, episodic binge drinking.
4. Avoid portraying FASD as an Indigenous issue. FASD can occur wherever pregnant women consume alcohol.
Indigenous communities such as the Fitzroy Valley in Western Australia, the site for the first FASD prevalence study in Australia, have featured in media reports of FASD in recent years. However, FASD is not restricted to Indigenous populations, rural and remote areas, or communities with low socioeconomic status. Instead, FASD has been reported worldwide including in predominately middle class populations in Western Europe and the US.
5. Include links to further information on FASD or services for women in media reports.
FASD is a largely under-recognised public health problem and media reports can play an important role in raising community awareness and directing people to further information or assistance. Consider providing links to resources such as the Telethon Institute for Child Health Research, the National Organisation for Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorders, the Foundation for Alcohol Research and Education or encourage women to talk to their GP or other health professional.
Some background reading
• It has been estimated that between about two and six per cent of young school age children in Western populations are affected by FASD.
• A more recent systematic review of FASD in school settings found prevalence estimates ranging up to 10.7%. These children have permanent brain injury as a direct result of prenatal exposure to alcohol, yet community awareness of the size of the problem is relatively low.